The Levelling

UK (2016) Dir. Hope Dickson Leach

Families are supposed to be the ones we can count on in our lives and be the ones we can talk to when things are tough. But what happens when they are the ones who shut you out and are no longer communicating? That is probably the hardest thing for anybody to take, especially during a time of grief when questions need answers.

After learning her brother Harry (Joe Blakemore) had died, trainee vet Clover Catto (Ellie Kendrick) returns home to the family farm on the Somerset Levels, receiving a terse welcome from her estranged father Aubrey (David Troughton). Clover learns that Harry’s death, which occurred at a party to celebrate to celebrate his taking over the farm, was suicide but his best friend James (Jack Holden) lets slip it might not be the case.

When Aubrey gets a call notifying him that an agreed sale of their livestock had been mysteriously cancelled without his knowledge, it seems Harry took a number of secrets with him to his grave. The more Clover tries to get her father to talk the angrier Aubrey gets, the more hostile the relationship becomes, while James is less reluctant to answer Clover’s questions.

The feature debut for Hope Dickson Leach is as British as the director’s posh sounding name, with the cast mostly speaking in plum, precise English accents despite the West Country setting, with a liberal sprinkling of clumsily injected profanity presumably to give things an “edge”. It doesn’t need it, as the fraught divide between father and daughter is prickly enough to make the audience uncomfortable.  

Dwelling on the unbearable tension between Aubrey and Clover is only part of Dickson Leach’s plan to suck the happiness out of our lives for 83 painfully gloomy minutes, also relying on the tried and tested tactic of mistreating animals to engender further despair. Not that there is anything too graphic but the story calls for a new born calf to be culled and dead badgers being dug up which is grim enough even in suggestion.

However, the suffering of the animals is revealed to be a by-product of Harry’s apparent mismanagement of the farm, which becomes a vital plot point later point as the truth about his death come to light, whilst also serving as a loose parallel for Aubrey’s attitude towards his children – at least at this point of joining the story in which he prove to be a domineering patriarch with high standards.

Aubrey is a frustrating character to relate to from the onset, his greeting of Clover upon her return after many year away is noticeably emotion-free under the circumstances, a simple “Jolly good show, you made it” is the extent of his greeting. We hope this is him simply putting on a brave face to hide his grief but a bitter fall out is soon revealed, and we realise this was in fact as openly warm as he could be.

The more the fractured relationship between Clover and Aubrey – she always refers to him by his name – is explored, the pettier Aubrey appears. He harbours anger at his daughter for leaving home when in fact HE kicked her out when she was 18, while the subject of her mother is a no-go area. Similarly, Aubrey has a very different recollection of his kids’ lives, arguing his version of events is truer than Clover’s, who should know.

But it is not necessarily what they say to each other that gives the film its tragic bent, rather the heavy periods of silence where neither can find anything to say despite the close proximity. For two people of a shared bloodline reduced to agonisingly awkward small talk is sad enough, but Clover knows her father isn’t telling the whole story about Harry’s drunken accident with the shotgun, and perhaps never will.

Gradually, themes of living up to high expectations, refusing to deal with failure and the folly of ruling a family with an iron fist begin to form, but ultimately this is about an inability to communicate and the attendant consequences. The script develops a mean streak in letting Aubrey and Clover jump to conclusions that cause ill feelings to fester when a simple explanation is only forthcoming when it is too late.

It is ironic that a film which relies on so much silence to build atmosphere and create moments of gravid unease explores allegorically the extent of the trouble staying silent can cause. The choice of countryside backdrop is vital to this too; the fusty grime of the muddy fields and makeshift caravan home in lieu of the dilapidated, flood-damaged farmhouse removes the mod-con distractions of urban life to force confrontation.

Dickson Leach’s direction is intrusive to the point of making us feel we shouldn’t be encroaching on this troubled situation, whilst the prolonged stretches of nothing but natural soundscapes, courtesy of the excellent sound design, feel like a deliberate test of our nerve before hitting us with another round of abrasive familial home truths. Despite the saturnine veneer the photography is clear and vivid but still captures the earthy grittiness of rural life.

The challenge to make us believe in the flawed father and daughter is answered by the capable leads of Ellie Kendrick and David Troughton, both reaching in deep inside to bring out the best and worst of their respective characters. Kendrick is new to me but she is a revelation as Clover, her modern humanity deftly countered by Troughton’s inherent intransigence in refusing to recognise his own faults.

Life is bleak and The Levelling is Dickson Leach holding a mirror up to this sad fact of life, whilst offering a poignant suggestion in what we can do to make it a bit better and avoid needless tragedies. A stirring and accomplished debut with no intention of courting the mainstream, the message, like Bob Hoskins once said in the famous BT ads, is clear: “It’s good to talk”.