Director: Hope Dickson Leach
Cast: Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton
Watch The Levelling online in the UK: BBC iPlayer / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
England has a strong tradition of folk horror. Disturbing, unsettling tales with their roots deep in the country’s pastoral history. The Levelling seems to be the latest in that line, opening with a fiery, drunken party on a Somerset farm, the kind of nocturnal gathering that could descend into witchcraft, ritual sacrifice or one of those other effigy-based hobbies. But that rural nightmare never appears. What emerges is a nightmare of a different kind.
Director Hope Dickson Leach sinks into the squelching terror of that no man’s land between dread and reality with quiet confidence. It’s impressive to realise this is her feature debut – this is a drama with all the ominous, unsettling atmosphere of a seasoned filmmaker such as Ben Wheatley. We pick up events after that party, as Clover (Kendrick) returns home for the funeral of her brother. It’s an uneasy homecoming, one that reunites her with her father, Aubrey (Troughton), who is also struggling to comes to terms with their loss.
Leach’s script is stuffed with the pain of alienation, a feeling that she captures by never talking openly about it. This is a study of people failing to communicate, a melting pot of grief and lingering secrets that boils the complex relationship between Clover and Aubrey down to awkward silences. (It would make an effective low-key companion piece to Manchester by the Sea.)
Almost playing out like a two-hander, Leach places the burden of success on her cast, and the duo more than carry the weight. David Troughton is heartbreakingly good, as the dad facing the difficulties of running a farm on his own without financial support; he’s a man of anger and desperation, both buried beneath the day-to-day demands of manual chores. “You get up, get out of bed, and milk the bloody cows,” he tells Clover, with bleak resilience, during one heated exchange.
Ellie Kendrick is equally excellent. After impressing as Meera in Game of Thrones, she delivers a star-making central turn, communicating the wave of complicated feelings Clover is navigating with an unspoken intensity and a visible vulnerability, plus the occasional outburst. Dropped off in a car at the farm, she’s asked if there’s anything her driver can do. “Can you make it my dad instead of my brother?” comes the barbed reply. It’s one of the only times she uses the ‘d’ word: throughout the film, she calls him ‘Aubrey’, a little touch that speaks volumes.
Both father and daughter are unavoidably linked by this tragedy – and by the responsibility of the family estate. The Levelling of the title comes not just from death, that great proverbial leveller, but also from the Somerset Levels, the coastal plain that flooded severely in 2014. Aubrey is still drowning years after, with no claims giving him the compensation needed to pay the bills – and no son to perform the duties he was meant to, by inheriting the farm. Clover’s absence emerges as being just as brutal as her return. Even after leaving for university for five years, the family legacy has seeped out in unexpected ways: she’s training to be a vet and has also become a vegetarian, the latter leading to a prickly dinner scene involving a shepherd’s pie.
Such confrontations are rare, and Leach leans into them with a natural sincerity, before leaning out into the wide open spaces between to foster a deliberately unnatural sense of anticipation. Shots of the local wildlife (and the pervasive noise of the rain) are a beautiful but almost eerie backdrop to Clover’s gradual uncovering of what happened to her brother. Oil stains, badgers, candlelight, bullets. They all join together into a portrait of gathering portent, one that erupts but not in the way that you expect. There’s an ambiguity that counters the growing sense of sad clarity, as we circle around the horror of that fateful night with the bonfire. But this is not really the story of that incident: this is the tale of the cold morning after, of homesteads ruined and lives bound together in the most tragically ordinary of ways. There are deaths, rituals and supernatural terrors galore in Britain’s rich folk history. Sometimes, though, nightmares can be the most natural thing.
The Levelling is available on BBC iPlayer until 6th October 2019.
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