In December 2013 the rains began. The residents of the Somerset Levels looked on anxiously as the ground became waterlogged and rivers swelled into torrents. Soon a huge swathe of land was submerged, with catastrophic consequences for those who live and work upon it. Anger soon flared up, directed at a government that had cut funding for flood defences and at insurers dragging their heels on paying out.
This is the landscape of The Levelling, a grim little first feature by Hope Dickson Leach that uses the floods as a backdrop for exploring themes of guilt, grief, family and a person’s connection to the land they walk upon.
We enter this world six months after the flood and see it through the eyes of Clover (Game of Thrones alumni Ellie Kendrick), a veterinary student returning home in the unhappiest of circumstances. In her absence, her father Aubrey (David Troughton) has made the decision to gift the family farm to her brother, James (Jack Holden). The village held a party to celebrate the passing of the mantle, their celebrations suddenly curtailed by the muffled blast of a shotgun. James has unexpectedly killed himself, leaving a traumatized Clover to try and understand why.
The majority of the film finds Clover picking through the ruins of the family she left behind. Her father, a solid Somerset masculine archetype, wears a perma-haunted expression and spends his days determinedly slugging down whiskey, and the family farmhouse is a soggy, dark ruin with walls stained with mud from the receding waters. Even the cows look despondent.
All this takes place under a slate-grey English drizzle that seems to suck all colour from the frame. That, coupled with the waterlogged ground and frantic efforts to dig ditches around the farm to prevent further flooding, gives the proceedings a gently apocalyptic air, as if the characters and locations exist at the whim of a capricious God who’ll rub them off the face of the earth without a second thought.
Dickson Leach subverts the typically bucolic presentation of the English countryside to a place of horror, misery and death. Watching her miserable characters trudging through endless mud and filth I was reminded of Werner Herzog’s famous quote:
“Nature is vile and base. I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and just rotting away. Of course, there’s a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain.”
To stare into the face of this uncomprehending chaos is the titular ‘levelling,’ an impersonal destructive force that doesn’t distinguish between rich and poor, man and woman, young and old or animal and human. Interspersed with the drama are abstract scenes of a hare swimming through inky black waters, eventually sinking below the waters forever. Its futile struggle is all too appropriate in a movie so oppressively morose that when the characters ponder suicide you can hardly blame them.
The bleak countryside is reflected in understandably glum protagonist Clover, who spends much of the film staring into various kinds of abysses. Whether she’s drunkenly scrubbing her brother’s blood from the bathroom tiles, plunging herself into a freezing ditch of water or executing a newborn calf with a shotgun, she doesn’t really get a moment to exhale.
So it’s a credit to Ellie Kendrick that Clover remains likeable and empathic throughout; clinging to a thread of logic and hard-nosed pragmatism that lets her keep her nose above the water. Though this is the character at her lowest, Kendrick gives us glimpses of what Clover is like in ‘normal’ circumstances, her vegetarianism, glimmers of politics and regard for animal welfare gently separating her from a cast of characters who’ve drifted into dull nihilism.
Were it not for the care with which Dickson Leach and Kendrick construct Clover, The Levelling would be an unbearably sad watch. But she’s so solidly three-dimensionally written and performed that she provides a ray of optimism in the nightmare: though the whole world might have been smashed to pieces, it’s possible to rebuild, reconnect and maybe – just maybe – emerge stronger.
The Levelling is a wonderful first feature from Hope Dickson Leach. Morose beyond measure, but leavened with subtle hope via Ellie Kendrick's superb central performance.