Words by Ed King
N.B. Birmingham Review would like to thank the British Independent Film Awards (BIFA) for inviting us to the screening of The Levelling at Everyman – The Mailbox. Click on the highlighted links for more from both.
When you grow up without trust you build a selfish shell behind the facade – a subtle barricade; a wall to keep out the corrosive, stagnant waters. A flood defence if you will. But all rivers lead to the sea and subtly, especially within families, seldom goes unnoticed.
Hope Dickson Leach wrote and directed The Levelling, her first feature film after an impressive portfolio of shorts, and marches us up the path and through the gate to the zenith of dysfunction. Set in rural Somerset, The Levelling tells the story of the Cato family – as sister Clover (Ellie Kendrick) returns to the washed out, literally, homestead after bother Harry (Joe Blakemore) dies at the end of an ambiguous shotgun. Father Aubrey (David Troughton) is convinced “it’s just a stupid bloody accident” but in the community of silence that surrounds them, that at times both supports and smothers them, no one argues or agrees. That’s our job.
Beautifully shot: long stills of an empty working farm, raw brutality left on the grill, a muddy princess slipper forgotten every time we walk past it – Leach knows how to point a camera. The soundtrack is cherry picked too, with Hutch Demouilpied’s pivoted score taking us from the lamented strings and sporadic keys of a house revisited, to the white noise nightmare of the film’s most (for me) harrowing scene. Audio and visual are wonderfully tied together.
Focused on the frayed relationship between father and daughter, the narrative of The Levelling is an extrapolation of explanation; a painful question asked over and over yet always unanswered. Initially we’re backing Clover – the estranged daughter who navigates the clipped emotions and quip deflections of a man strong enough yet unable, or unwilling, to deal with the reality around him. A man who could have some answers about the death of his son; a man who should hug his daughter.
But as we pick through the silent deceit of a family who don’t communicate we are introduced to a wider culpability – the selfish escape, the tacit support of someone clearly out of their depth, the community celebration of a broken toy, the alcoholic exoneration of abuse, and the focus of your biggest concern at the most crucial of moments being on yellow, fucking, flowers. A blanket ban on anything of substance – a world quietly prepared to fall in on itself, to “put your family in the ground one by one and not give a shit”. I call it ‘the poison’. Leach doesn’t give it a name but every rose draws blood if you hold it hard enough.
You can count the main cast list in The Levelling on just over one hand, and Hope Dickson Leach makes rich use of her principals – telling a difficult story through a series of duplicitous and intimate interactions. Delivering most of the script, the muted affection and vocal sparring between Clover and Aubrey is particularly frightening; always on a razor edge, we’re left waiting for someone to finally break down or lash out with brutal regret. The scene where father and daughter reminisce through a dusty attic is particularly poignant, whilst the late night drunken cupboard slamming/search will have some audience members curled up in memories and fear.
Harry’s closest friend, James (Jack Holden) is superb – balancing his love, fear and stilted anger as the Catos rip themselves to shreds and stamp their feet asking everyone else “…what happened?” Whilst the ancillary interruptions – the Tupperware band aids, the police sergeant who eventually remembers to take of his hat, the adventurously blunt vicar – serve to bolster both the determined pretense of the principals and the dangerously rose tinted world they are now at the centre of. And don’t be dazzled by the magpie machinations of a silver screen story, communities like this are just as real, just as frightening, and just as inevitable as The Levelling portrays; there will be countless more horror we’ll never see on film.
It is, perhaps, the high calibre of The Levelling that brings its only downfall: there’s arguably too much going on. Bear with me here. And just throw the prefix ‘to me’ around as much as you need to. But the essence of the story is a warning – learn to open up to those you love, learn to share your emotions, learn to be truthful, or you’ll end up surrounded by “stupid bloody animals” whilst burning a calf in a wheelbarrow.
There were points in The Levelling’s narrative that added layers without allowing enough time for them, or their context, to match the same level as the rest of the film. The digging army, Mrs Cato, the gasoline in the kitchen, boarding school, Lady Macbeth hands, the world’s most terrifying Sheppard Pie. Even the funeral. But the irony of The Levelling’s success – namely telling a story of repression through repression – made these plot points arguably unnecessary; the punch had already landed. Plus the ending is too forgiving. Although that may say more about me than it does about the film.
The Levelling is a superb piece of cinema though. And whilst I don’t know how much money was behind the production, God knows there’s a few partners and ‘special thanks to’ as the credits roll (Vegetarian Shoes being my personal favourite) it represents a cast and crew who should be given buckets loads to do it again.
I, for one, will be doing my bit to support this and the rest of the British independent film community, buying several copies of The Levelling DVD when it comes out on 17th July. The Levelling is also available on demand and still showing in cinemas across the UK, so you can get a copy of it whenever you want. But it’ll make an excellent Christmas present for some people I used to know.
The Levelling (cert 15)
The Levelling comes to the Everyman cinema in The Mailbox on Tuesday 23rd May, for a one off screening – as presented by the British Independent Film Awards (BIFA). For direct event info and online ticket sales from BIFA, click here.
For more on The Levelling, visit www.thelevelling-film.com
For more on Hope Dickson Leach, visit www.hopedicksonleach.com
For more from Everyman – The Mailbox, including full show times and online sales, visit www.everymancinema.com/mailbox-birmingham
For more from the British Independent Film Awards, including more details of previews and screenings, visit www.bifa.film