The Levelling (2017)

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Being touted as Hope Dickson Leach’s feature directorial debut, but she’s already got a few short films under her belt.

Begins with a confused, unsettling melee; torchlit party but with a Kill List-esque folk-horror excess. This threatening provincial gothic atmosphere becomes diffused across the whole film, which takes the shocking death of the brother of our central character, Clover, as the traumatic rupture at the film’s centre. Poster above is very apt: sense of bifurcation, splitting – regret that it was her brother not her father; return to a past world; a parent and daughter who’ve grown apart. Central death like a ridge, scar-tissue which must now be traced and examined; Clover feels her way up her brother’s cold arm under a sheet, navigating the terrain of this new situation. All this in a world after the 2014 flooding on the Somerset Levels; distinctly apocalyptic unreality to the ossified homestead, unsettlingly mathematical and arbitrary floodline cutting the world horizontally in two.

Quickly turns into a wonderfully haunting investigation of spatial memory and trauma. Preserved spaces like Clover’s room (with its petrified mementos of childhood) and Harry’s room, concealed spaces like the neglected dog Milo, the scene of the suicide, the ominous kitchen. Part of the farm as a breathing entity, father Aubrey as a kind of sodden Fisher King letting presiding over stock and space. Ambient landscapes interposed, psychogeographical influence of Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, evidence of the natural disaster in innocuous rivers and sunken flatlands. First refreshing approach is the appropriately catastrophic metaphor for real historical events effecting under-examined provincial populations and territories (all the while giving the personal drama a proper, respectful weight and autonomy).

Most important spatial dimension, though, is old idea of the traumatic return, return to trauma. This resumption of old duties takes C by surprise – “I didn’t bring any wellies” becomes symbolic in a feature-length exposition of the same metaphorical physicalisation of trauma represented by Cillian Murphy’s shellshocked soldier in Dunkirk. A’s aggressive self-defence frequently blocks C’s inquiries by invoking her past absences – “you weren’t here” for H’s death; I didn’t give you the farm because “you left” (a particularly chilling strategy given that his miscommunications enforced another of C’s absences during her mother’s death, which serves as the traumatic precedent for H’s death). His oppugnant attitude is bolstered by an apparently un-selfcritical insistence on efficiency: “You have to get up get out of bed and milk the bloody cows.” His strategy eventually gets to C, as she attacks a sympathetically probing pastor: “I’m not feeling guilt – I wasn’t even here.” What’s perhaps more insidious is the subsequent switch in A’s defences wherein he uses the past life, with which C is trying to reconnect, as a new weapon against her, evoking that brute efficiency in enjoining C to kill an unneeded calf (having jokingly encouraged her to eat shepherd’s pie earlier).

Second refreshing approach is portrait of creepily feudal or monarchic yet cooperative limbo-world of traditional British farming. Lots of talk of authority, succession. Buried Hamlet vibe was brought home to me at the point where C jumps into a ditch to rescue Milo from drowning. Frustration at resumed efficiency mirrors Hamlet’s disgust at weddings immediately following funerals. Most notably the digging connection, with H‘s first utilisations of “harrowing” in a metaphorical sense, images of buried accusing bodies (shot badgers). The rotation of familial personnel from lends weight to C’s gendered isolation and desire to forge her own career off the farm, reflecting more broadly on relationship dynamics in that novel agricultural context.

To go with the cinematography and use of ominous metaphorical shots of submerged rabbits and cattle there’s some excellent sound design: Kermode talked about the use of ambient noise in the negative space between failed communications; sparing use of interpolated music too, particularly A Silver Mt. Zion’s He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms… (particularly ’13 Angels’).

Ultimately C sees the fragility behind her father’s capricious attitude; her decision to stay at the farm is rescued from an unsatisfying act of forgiveness by an acknowledgement of nuanced psychological effects of grief (she herself lashes out at a friend in her very first appearance). The fact that this reconciliation is staged as quite a sensationalist climax does ultimately solidify a slight sense of the post-Scandi noir BBC drama, a context which emerges occasionally in the ambient landscape shots and the highly-strung script (elsewhere, the screaming peaks of terror and grief are seriously gripping). However, there’s no lasting impression of genre, because this is an intelligent, beautifully economical and expertly paced drama. Keep an eye out for the name.

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