Review: THE LEVELLING, Intense and Moving Portrait of Family Grief
Ellie Kendrick stars in Hope Dickson Leach's quietly moving, sensitive, yet unsentimental debut feature.
Social realism has always been the cornerstone of British cinema; the lives of the working classes have been a mainstay for UK filmmakers for decades. In recent years, both the creators of these films, and the subjects, are increasingly women; directors such as Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold have been adapting how we look at the lives of the British working classes. With her debut feature The Levelling, Hope Dickson Leach can confidently join those ranks with her quietly moving and sensitive, yet unsentimental portrait of grief, tragedy, and family conflict.
Clover (Ellie Kendrick), just about to qualify as a veterinarian, returns to the family dairy farm after the sudden death of her brother James. Her father, whom she refers to by his first name Aubrey (David Troughton), seems to be unwilling or unable to accept James' death. The family's house has become unocuppied since recent major floods, and it seems the farm is on the verge of bankruptcy. As the truth behind James' death comes to light, tension grows between Clover and Aubrey, whose already strained relationship is brought to the brink.
Working-class Britain is usually shown in more urban settings, or among the now-defunct coal mines; farming life tends to be more glorified and portrayed as happy. Instead, Dickson Leach focuses on the hard labour of it. Setting the story in Somerset, where real-life floods a few years ago devastated much of the local farming community, Dickson Leach takes advantage of this by showing this labour and how, as vulnerable to the natural elements as capitalism, a living and a home can be gone in an instant.
Beginning the film with flashes of a party that seems to decend into bacchinalian madness, the human animal is shown at its most primal, even in this space where animals are the source of income. Clover has dedicated her life to such animals, and she is 'a born farmer' (suggested as not common in a woman), and the strain between her and Aubrey is as much because she was the one who should have stayed home, as oppose to her brother.
This combination of the real and something of surreal expressionism is aided in no small part by cinematographer Nanu Segal's work, photographing the bleak, damp, yet beautiful landscape and the humans who work on it, and the score by Hutch Demouilpied, which seeks to both draw out and reflectede the tension, anger, and love between father and daughter.
But it's also the emotional labour, particularly the emotional labour done by women, that the film spotlights. Clover may have worshipped her brother, but she is at least willing to accept the reality of the manner of his death, and her anger at being kept in the dark regarding the family's dire financial situation forces her to confront Aubrey in how the family dynamic has been twisted.
Kendrick (likely known to North American audiences through her role on Game of the Thrones) is mesmerizing as Clover. Her emotions are clearly on the knife's edge; her obvious relaxation and joy at the farm work is countered both by her rage at her brother's death and her father's denial of the truth, as well as the slow reveal of the secrets both Aubrey and James had been keeping. Clover's emotions are at the breaking point, and Kendrick draws the audience in with her intensity, with the samllest catch in the throat or her forceful defense of those she loves.
Combining social realism with haunting dreams images, Dickson Leach moves the story through the barely contained emotions of the main characters, both heightened by the recent tragedy and at times necessarily contained by the working life that must continue. A remarkable and confident debut, The Levelling is haunting look at how grief can tear people apart and bring them together.
The Levelling opens in select theatres in the United States on Friday, March 31st, via Monterey Media.