THE LEVELLING is very much like farming soap opera THE ARCHERS, only bleaker, with better acting and real animals. If you’re American, or not middle-class enough know about The Archers, don’t worry about it.
Taking a forced sabbatical from her veterinary studies, Clover (Ellie Kendrick) returns “home” to a flooded farmhouse, her father Aubrey (David Troughton) living in a caravan on bricks and a whole lot of grief to deal with following the sudden death of her brother Harry. Will this tragedy bring the estranged family back together or push them further apart?
The arguments between Clover and Aubrey are heated but calculating, cutting but coming out because deep down they care. They are father and daughter who don’t really know each other, attaching and counter-attacking, trying to figure the other out and coming to terms with the fact that it’s both their fault. On the farm it becomes clear that they make a good team, they work well together in an identical methodical way. This is probably why Aubrey resents his daughter so much for leaving home to pursue her own dreams: all he was left with was Harry, and he just didn’t have it with him. Clover was called back home by a neighbour, Aubrey may not have ever been able to tell her what happened himself. It might never have occurred to him that it should be a father telling his daughter about her brother’s sudden, tragic death.
On moving on from, dealing or not with grief: “You have to get up, get out of bed and milk the bloody cows”. At a key moment Clover comes out with one of the most heartbreaking and yet non-judgemental things possible to say to a grieving parent.
The film has an understated beauty to it. Emotionally and visually it’s grey but full of life. There’s a hint on the edge of the bleakness, the unplowed, rubbish strewn earth and the people keeping everything bottled up that something better must be around the corner. As well as being solidly grounded and naturalistic, there is also a strange eeriness to The Levelling. It’s something about the sound design, the out of place human-animal wooping and a very sprawl sense of something horribly sinister lurking below the surface. It’s almost a relief when the final revelations come and the answers are so mundane, so “that’s life”.
When there finally is an emotional release, when the characters are at their rawest, must vulnerable state, the heavens open and the film world cries with them. As a metaphor I loved that, though I can’t say I’m certain what the rabbit was meant to represent. Perhaps it’s intentionally ambiguous or maybe it just passed me by.
The Levelling reminded me a lot of one of my favourite films of last year, NINA FOREVER in its approach to grief. The presence of the again excellent David Troughton in a broken emotional state certainly helps. He has the showier role here, the biggest and most heartbreaking outbursts, but Aubrey only has emotional power because of the reasons he locks horns with Ellie Kendrick’s relatively dialled-down, vulnerable Clover. She is easily the strongest character in their family, and when she left things went South fast. Her dad couldn’t cope without his rock.
The Levelling is an intense experience that feels all too real to ever feel emotionally manipulative. Using very little more than two barnstorming central performances and the bleak beauty of untended rural landscapes, it sensitively explores grief, guilt and the inability of many families to communicate with each other. What a sublime, affecting feature debut from Hope Dickson Leach, a name to watch. SSP