Review by Benjamin Poole
Directed by: Hope Dickson Leach
Starring: Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton, Jack Holden, Joe Blakemore
Hope Dickson Leach’s pastoral drama The Levelling opens with a firework montage of pagan energy. In rapid transitions we see ribald young men, naked save for the gym socks wrapped about their penises, drink and fight and dance about the hot tangerine flames of a bonfire; fingers are forebodingly plunged into churned sod, semen hits the screen, and the sound bridges from revelry to violence, as all the while a hare watches, the urgent carousing reflected in her patient and ominous glare.
In contrast to its strange and vibrant preface, The Levelling’s narrative proper is a sombre, meditative affair. It’s a hangover of a movie, one that regretfully pieces together the events that fatefully led up to the night depicted in the prologue, an evening which ended in the suicide of one character. In a similarly reflective manner, The Levelling is also in its own small way a ‘post-disaster’ movie; the action takes place within a farm in the south of England, six months after floods have devastated the area, picking up on the lasting effects of the disaster, rather than the spectacle itself. The farm has been rendered destitute, barely held together by patriarch Aubrey (David Troughton) and local James (Jack Holden), a grim set of circumstances which the estranged Clover (Ellie Kendrick) discovers when she returns home for the funeral of her brother (Harry, who shot himself during the party). When a family friend drops Clover off at the dilapidated homestead, he makes the usual ‘if there’s anything I can do’ noises, to which Clover snaps, ‘Could you make it my dad that died, and not my brother?’- ooof! It doesn’t seem as if anyone is about to kill the fatted calf upon Clover’s return: for one thing, they can barely afford to lose the asset.
From the uncomfortably tight edits of the opening close-ups, The Levelling’s mise-en-scene opens up to beautifully bleak shots of the flat countryside, wide angle shots that seem to hold an infinite sadness, one that has been allowed to stretch as far as the horizon itself; as damaging to the environment as the floods whose sheen of stagnant water the plains still bear. The farm itself is pitiless, a tableau that Leach paints in rough hues of mud, blood, metal and sweat. The tone is set when one of the first things we see on the farm is a septic tank wherein the carcass of some wretched animal rots and ferments: fair play to Leach, there is no shying away from the brutal business of farming here. As the film unfolds, calves are shot for being the wrong gender, a mass grave of badgers is literally unearthed, and a dog (Mylo - my favourite character) almost drowns: the lives of these poor little souls (and, it transpires, the suicidal Harry) dependent on a merciless market economy (weirdly, this is the second film in as many weeks I’ve seen where the actors milk a cow - beat that, Pauline Kael!). Not to make light of the issue but I’d probably kill myself too if I had to live there, and, as if to emphasise the point, there is a visual motif of actual shit that runs through the movie; shit scraped off floor and boots, shit piling up in an outhouse where Mylo has been abandoned, shit in a toilet that doesn’t flush…
Leach weaves similarly bellicose visual metaphors throughout the film, mainly in the shape of non-causal scenes of animals traversing water, such as an otter diving and ascending in slow motion, or a herd of cows splashing through. The meaning is clear: nature, red in tooth and claw, has primacy here, as demonstrated by the floods and the animal nature of life on the farm. However, while this handsomely filmed production is an achievement in grim spectacle, the style, pristine as it is, at times prevents us from fully investing in the drama, rendering the action cold and remote. We never feel heartbroken, or, despite Kendrick’s game performance at the centre of the film, able to relate to the characters. Everything, from the score, to the dark lighting and iconography of dead animals, is an omen, a portent of doom. As the prodigal son narrative reaches a conclusion which is as inevitable as death itself on the farmstead, and a garden of Eden is seemingly lost forever, we’re left with a lasting oppression, a bleakness that bludgeons rather than a sincere emotional resonance. You’re left thinking that perhaps the badgers, the calves and the cows who perished instantly at the trigger of Aubrey’s gun, and thus got out quickly, were the lucky ones.
The Levelling is in UK cinemas May 12th.