The Levelling was shot on location in Somerset, which comes with the opportunity for me to swell up with pride. There ain’t too many films that explore our part of the world. Usually we’re just shipped to other places to ham up our accents and play the British equivalent of the yokel. This farming village, struggling after poorly planned flood defences failed and washed the land with all the shit upstream feels too familiar, although we ourselves are uphill of all that.
The stars of The Levelling are dairy farmers. The insurance company refused to pay out for all the damage incurred by the flooding leaving them with acres of unusable land; a half destroyed house and a thin herd which they’re now considering selling off to keep the place solvent. The current domicile is a static trailer pulled up in their forecourt. Everything about the place seems desperate, aside from the demeanour and cut-glass accent of the patriarch. Their dog is a pure breed reminder of times when things were less shit.
Clover (Ellie Kendrick), the daughter, what a portentous name, arrives home for the first time in years in the wake of her brother’s untimely death. At a party celebrating the passing of the farm into his hands an ‘accident’ involving one of the shotguns on the property resulted in his demise. Nobody seems willing to talk about it, least of all her father who impetuously brushes the matter off. There’s no love lost between these two characters, both seem particularly invested in the death not being their fault, even if that means they’re blaming the only other possible culprit, each other.
In the meantime, they have to go about the business of running the farm. My father keeps cows, though not dairy ones, along with other livestock and produce, I am still keenly aware of the stresses it brings. Managing land, caring for these animals, early mornings and late nights through calving season, engaging and befriending everyone in the local area. Seriously, farmers have got to be the best networkers, their entire livelihood depends on it. It’s not something that I could do.
Which is a sentiment expressed by the father, Aubrey (David Troughton), often enough in this film. It’s hard to say to what extent the guy is just some bona-fide, disgusting misogynist or whether he just really really hates his daughter. At any rate, he was quite happy when she left all those years ago to become a veterinarian, and now with his son dead is solely dedicated to abusing her off his land. The relationship the two actors conjure up is thrilling, it’s just hard to watch. There is so much barely constrained malice behind every interaction and director Hope Dickson Leach traps us in these conversations.
For the countryside she finds so many ways to constrain these characters. Conversations are held in cars, in the milking shed, in the trailer too small to properly stand up in, in between boxes searching for documents in the small attic. Their already small lives have been crushed further under the weight of death and while Clover talks like all the wind has been removed from her Aubrey turns into a rage. I suspect he was already an alcoholic before we see him here, but none of it can be helping.
I understand it, I just found it hard to watch the relentless abuse of this young woman. By the end it turns into a thing which is sickening, but then it’s not a happy film, I’m just supposed to feel sick.
There is comfort to be found in the mystery. The sense that all the answers can be contained in the world we explore. Like the abandoned manse in Fullbright’s Gone Home as we move from room to room we find the physical artefacts that the missing have left behind. From those we can figure out why those things, so unexplainable in real life, happen. It’s imperfect in that way, the artificiality of this construct, we can feel the space bending itself around the plot. It doesn’t work so well when the audience are denied access to the space.
It would be lesser were it not so grounded in reality by the director’s meticulous attention to detail in the spaces she creates and the performances she wrings out of these two characters. Kendrick and Troughton are the perfect tools to sharpen the film to a near lethal edge, their sparring is perfection. But I’ll just have to admit this this is one razor blade I’m just not super interested in swallowing.
The Levelling is currently screening in UK cinemas