In 2014, intense rainfall flooded the farmlands of Somerset, UK. Land became waterlogged, crops were destroyed – buildings, bridges and homes were washed away in the flooding. In true British form, we ‘kept calm and carried on’, but the effects of the floods can still be seen in the landscape today. Hope Dickson Leach’s first feature film The Levelling sets its narrative around this disastrous period – and investigates the connection between nature and humanity, with breathtaking results.
Clover (Game of Thrones‘s Ellie Kendrick) returns home to the family farm after the sudden death of her brother, Harry. As she re-connects with her father, it is clear that there is a huge fracture within their family – bought to light by Harry’s suicide. Both Clover and her father, Aubrey (David Troughton) battle with their grief, and inability to communicate with each other. It becomes clear to Clover that life on the farm for her brother was not what it seemed and although Aubrey insists that Harry’s death was an accident, Clover starts to realise the issues run deeper than she could have imagined. Both father and daughter, inept at dealing with their own emotions, struggle through the aftermath of his death – eventually learning that they both must accept their own feelings of guilt before they can move on.
The Levelling is a film of little dialogue. What is said between Clover and Aubrey holds great meaning and is deliberate. There is little room for small talk or chatter, there are no wasted words or ‘filler’. It is also within the silences between dialogue (of which there are many) that The Levelling is at it’s most captivating. From the very outset, the lead-up to Harry’s death, we are engaged by images. The stark contrast between the lucid party sequence (colourful fire, costume and frantic camera movements) and the following scene as Clover arrives at the farm, explains everything we need to know without words. As Clover arrives, the farm is dull, grey and washed out. There is something wrong here. The interluding shots between scenes of animals swimming in water remind us of the flooding, and consequently of Clover’s feelings of guilt.
The vast majority of the shots are handheld, following Clover around the farm, watching her as a bystander as she tries to make sense of her brothers death. The Levelling is shot simply but with great conviction. The lighting and set design makes the most of what is already there, giving the film a sense of absolute realism, as is so often the style with British indie films. It undermines the hard work of director Hope Dickson Leach and the crew to say that it’s ‘no frills’ filmmaking, but the style is uncomplicated and modest, and all the better to immerse us into the narrative. Dickson Leach has talked about the films tight budget and shooting schedule, and whilst that might have produced a lesser film for some – in this case it has made the film pretty remarkable. Working with what was already available, shooting in natural light, using pre-existing farm buildings yet focusing on the two main characters relationships to each other sincerely pays off.
Ellie Kendrick’s performance is also a real highlight of the film. We watch her unravel in front of our eyes, and Kendrick is superb at portraying the emotions pulling Clover in two different directions. She wants to be angry at Aubrey for kicking her out, angry at Harry for killing himself but she is too preoccupied with her own sense of guilt for not returning during the floods, that she can’t make sense of anything. Kendrick delivers an incredible performance throughout.
Under the surface, The Levelling also explores the relationship between humans and nature. Life and death are constant themes throughout the film. The catalyst for the film’s events is the death of Harry, and Clover constantly encounters death throughout the film. She discovers the badgers, which have been killed, and in one traumatic scene, Aubrey orders her to shoot a baby calf. Despite desperately not wanting to, Clover obliges – shooting the calf with a shotgun (similar to the one which Harry killed himself with). Clover’s job (a trainee vet) means that she is constantly in contact with the circle of life – bringing new life into the world, and watching animals die. It’s cyclical – much like Aubrey and Clover’s relationship in the film. As soon as it seems that the two of them see eye to eye, their relationship deteriorates again.
The idea of nature going on regardless of whether or not we are here to see it is very prevalent within The Levelling. The farm must carry on, the work will never stop and if the rain is going to come, it will. Nature doesn’t care for Clover and Aubrey’s grief or guilt. As Aubrey says, ‘we move on…’ The cows still have to be milked, nature will not stop for the death of one human.
This message, though seemingly very distressing, becomes one of hope by the very end of the film. It is only as the heavens open and it finally begins to rain, that Aubrey allows himself to grieve. He breaks down crying in Clover’s arms – reiterating that cyclical bond with nature yet again. The rain mimics Aubrey’s tears whilst Aubrey and Clover’s roles are reversed – Clover is comforting her father.
The Levelling is a small film, with a lot of heart, and a lot to say about grief, humanity and nature.