Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature The Levelling (2017) is an adept and touching depiction of grief, stressing the vital importance of addressing the emotional needs of others and ourselves amidst a story of family conflict and tragedy. After premiering at festivals in Toronto and London in late 2016, The Levelling saw its official UK release in May 2017, and instantly became both a personal favorite of mine and – in my opinion – one of the best British films in recent memory.
In the wake of her younger brother Harry’s sudden death, Clover, a young trainee veterinarian played by Game of Thrones‘ Ellie Kendrick, returns home to her family farm in Somerset soon after the winter flooding of 2014. She learns from her father, Aubrey (David Troughton), that Harry shot himself during a party celebrating his taking over of the farm. As Clover tries to unravel the mystery of what drove her brother to suicide, she struggles with her emotionally distant father and the fragmented relationship between them while the economic devastation wrought by the floods looms threateningly overhead.
Being such a small-scale, intimate story with a tiny cast, the film inevitably hangs on the strength of its two main characters and performers. Kendrick masters the minute details which reveal her character’s inability to emulate her father’s stoic approach of just forgetting and moving on, showing the wide cracks in her brave facade through subtle touches in her tone, expressions and body language. Aubrey is more practised at disguising his grief and guilt, but Troughton does an equally impeccable job at showing that inevitably even he cannot brush aside his profound hidden sorrow. The pair have a remarkable chemistry and are able to effectively communicate the great emotional distance between them before uttering a word.
It’s a world that feels incredibly genuine, so much so that you can practically feel the layers of mud it’s caked in , which ultimately adds a lot of weight and credibility to the story that takes place inside it.
In truth, both characters share some responsibility for this disconnect. Clover has spent much of her life trying to get away from home, referring to her father by his first name, while Aubrey himself has often been a cold and ineffective parent. Despite the harrowing situation, the family tragedy provides them with the opportunity to open up and reconcile their damaged relationship with one another by bringing the underlying problems that have been buried for years back to the surface.
The Somerset Levels provide the perfect backdrop to this subdued tale and the camera finds numerous moments of serene, melancholic beauty hidden in its muddy, waterlogged fields, accompanied by an appropriately sombre soundtrack. Leach knows when to pause the narrative and just immerse us in doleful mood and pensive reflection, whether it’s scenes of Clover strolling through the fields alone or the recurring, somewhat dreamlike images of cows and rabbits wading and paddling through flood water. It’s a world that feels incredibly genuine, so much so that you can practically feel the layers of mud it’s caked in , which ultimately adds a lot of weight and credibility to the story that takes place inside it.
The Levelling is a wonderful success in restrained but powerful filmmaking that will undoubtedly put Hope Dickson Leach on the map with the emerging wave of great female directors. Hopefully we’ll see more roles for Ellie Kendrick too after she has more than proved her prowess as an excellent leading actor.
An impressive debut from Hope Dickson Leach, The Levelling is a touching tale of family drama delivered by a wonderful small cast with perfectly moody and immersive direction.