As premiere features go, erstwhile short film-maker Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling marks a startlingly good debut for the first time full-length film director. Perfectly framed, and shot with masterful panache, this is a work charged with emotion, understatement and an awareness for its cinematic predecessors.
From the off, a choppy nighttime bonfire sequence, replete with naked figures evoking exuberance and violence alike, recalls The Wicker Man and establishes an unsettling tone reminiscent of rural horror. No conventional scares follow in the remaining 83 minutes however. Here, real life is quite horrifying enough. After the film’s cryptic openings, Leach then moves us to a later date in which Clover (Ellie Kendrick) is being driven to her father (David Troughton) on the family farm in the aftermath of her brother’s recent suicide. She brings with her both a history – Can you make it my Dad instead of my brother? – and sense of emotional denial – ‘I’m fine. I’m fine’ – that is only matched by the repressive keep calm and carry on attitude of her father: ‘It was a bloody stupid accident’. Though their respective deliveries differ, Clover clipped and Aubrey, her father, gruffly aggressive, their pain is intwined. It is not long before the pair are engaged in Aubrey’s mantra that they must ‘get up, get out of bed and milk the cows’.
Kendrick is an outstanding presence in the film and well paired with Troughton. So fine a line divides her motivation and ambition from her isolation and grief that the balance at all points threatens to tip. Grief, that is, both for the brother that she has lost and parental guidance that she never had. As time moves on, Leach drip feeds repressed histories of unhappy family dynamics through the plot, uncovering Clover’s precocious brilliance and Aubrey’s deep rooted resentments. On telling his daughter of her brother’s suicide, Aubrey not only neglects to approach and comfort his own child but instead offers warmth and an embrace to a local – male – farmhand and family friend. Perfectly capturing the experience for her protagonist, Leach abandons Clover and, isolated in her framing, she never feels or appears more alone than in this scene. Her portrait is even captured in the scene within the microwave door’s reflection to her left. Beautiful.
As is often the case in rural, particularly independent, cinema – think Arnold’s Wurthering Heights or last year’s The Witch even – much of the heavy lifting in atmospherics is born of the environment in which the work is filmed. Leach captures the South West of England terrifically with shots of natural disturbia that can’t help but make surreal inserts, designed to invoke recent devastating floods upon the farm, stick out unfavourably. Not necessarily as awkward additions, but somewhat unnecessarily oblique. Another thought on its Somerset locale – and I write this with the best will and meaning in the world – is that the backing audio and dialogue often would feel perfectly placed within an episode of Radio 4’s long-running soap: The Archers. Which I love. Obviously.
To some regard, The Levelling might be described as being Britain’s answer to Julia Ducournau’s Raw. Both certainly revolve around a vegetarian vet-in-training who is forced to approach grim physical and metaphysical environments. Also as with Raw, those who expect a wealth of plot development might be left wanting. However, again like Raw, The Levelling is tour de force of directorial prowess and emotional heft, powerful enough in quieter moments to unfailingly maintain engagement and linger in your thoughts for some time after.
What Leach does next is something to be anticipated with a grand eagerness, there’s magic in the making.