From the unglamorous muddiness of its contemporary English farmland setting, to the lyrical interludes as nocturnal animals swim in murky waters and woodland creatures quiver in damp hedgerows, Hope Dickson Leach’s feature directorial debut is startlingly assured. “The Levelling” is an intimate story, waterlogged with guilt, grief and blame, but it explores this dark spectrum with such unsentimental honesty that its tiny moments of uplift, when its repressed characters form tentative connections despite themselves, are magnified and moving. Unlike so many first-timers, Dickson Leach, who also wrote the script, never allows her reach to exceed her grasp: she sets boundary markers around the edges of her territory and doesn’t stray beyond them. Instead she gets her hands dirty, bedding down into these difficult, truculent characters and plunging us deep into the chilly loam of her mournful, atmospheric story.
It starts with an ending. Clover (“Game of Thrones” actor Ellie Kendrick), who’s training to be a veterinarian, is informed of her beloved brother Harry’s death back on the family farm, which had been badly hit by the preceding year’s devastating floods. When she arrives there, she discovers that Harry shot himself, either, as her blustery father Aubrey (David Troughton) insists, in a “bloody stupid accident” or, as the police seem to suspect, as a suicide. The latter explanation seems inconceivable, though, as at the time Harry had been enjoying a bacchanalian celebration, related to us in scrappily sinister cameraphone footage, after Aubrey had finally announced that he was giving Harry the farm to run.
Clover gradually pieces together the circumstances of Harry’s death, but this is not a whodunnit. What she’s really searching for is someone to blame: In an understated confessional scene she defiantly claims she herself bears no responsibility because she “wasn’t even here” when it happened. But of course that’s the great source of her guilt. The story of the film is of the harm we can inflict on others through absence, through omission, through not being where we ought to be, not saying what needs to be said.
It’s a tricky thing, to create drama out of inference, in which the most potent motivations remain unspoken, but Dickson Leach, aided by a riveting performance from Kendrick, does so adeptly. With brief moments over the dinner table and in a cluttered attic, the film subtly shows the strained parent-child relationship between Aubrey and Clover, whose well of mutual hostility runs deep. Yet, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Aubrey’s inappropriate heartiness around strangers is echoed in Clover’s artificially bright “Bye!” at the end of a phone conversation, and her insistence to neighbors that she’s fine, her dad’s fine, everything’s fine — when it is so very obviously not.
Throughout it all, there is a funeral to arrange and also the business of the farm to be getting on with — cows to be milked, fields to be dug up, a newborn calf to attend to. Cinematographer Nanu Segal’s calm, handheld camerawork captures these activities with pragmatic realism that only occasionally strays into the impressionistic. The camera is, after all, allied to Clover’s point of view, and her stiff, practical self-discipline is such that she rarely allows herself the luxury of dwelling on grief. But that resolve must falter at times, and when it does, Dickson Leach seamlessly incorporates a few woozily poetic motifs: Hutch Demouilpied’s excellent, sparingly used score suddenly takes on a keening electro edge, over underwater shots of a hare paddling through cloudy water — the film’s oddly macabre emblem.
As a sketch of a father-daughter relationship marred on both sides by ancient resentments, “The Levelling” feels universally relatable. As a portrait of a conflicted, spiky, not always likable protagonist, wonderfully played by Kendrick, it is cleverly, cautiously compassionate. And as a lived-in exploration of the hardships of livestock farming, it is authentic and specific, and like Francis Lee’s similarly excellent “God’s Own Country,” proves that there are vital and engaging stories to be told about the challenges facing England’s often cinematically invisible modern-day rural communities.
But most surprisingly, Dickson Leach, with a remarkably sure hand for a debutante, gives us a piquant critique of the British cultural tendency toward undemonstrativeness, which is all the more pointed for being contextualized in such prosaic circumstances, under such flat gray skies. This is not stuttery Downtonesque repression, or corseted Merchant-Ivory refinement. Here, that stubborn, prideful inarticulateness is not a charming quirk, but a blight — because if no one’s talking, there’s no way for anyone to ask for help. And lives can be lost to the silence.