THE floods that wreaked devastation on the Somerset Levels in late 2013 and early 2014 are the backdrop to The Levelling, a debut film from Hope Dickson Leach.
It is a quite brilliant debut as well, although no one should come expecting to laugh. Far from it. The Levelling is as depressing a story as will be told on celluloid this year. But the acting – and some of the cinematography featuring hares and cows either swimming or treading through flood water – is sublime.
The story starts with fuzzy out-of-focus – dream-like – pictures of a night-time party that seems to have got out of control with punches traded amidst the dancing and lit torches.
What we soon learn is that in amongst the partying a young farmer, Harry Catto, took his own life by blowing his brains out with a shot-gun – the blood-stained walls and floor of the farm house toilet are testament to the gruesome and tragic event that has occurred.
His sister, Clover, a veterinary student and a vegetarian, returns to the ramshackle farm where the party took place (evidence of the celebrations are everywhere). She then goes in search of explanations as to why Harry cut his life short.
It is a harrowing tale. The dairy farm is dilapidated as a result of the floods and the insurer’s refusal to pay up. Clover’s father Aubrey, ex-Army, is living in squalor in a mobile home adjacent to the farm and has turned to drink to drown his sorrows. The family dog, Milo, has been locked away and left to starve, much to Clover’s disgust who discovers it in a room surrounded by piles of its own faeces.
The relationship between Clover and Aubrey is fraught, a result of Clover’s earlier decision to leave the farm and carve out a career for herself, much against her father’s wishes. The more she searches for answers, the more fraught it becomes.
Why did Harry take his life when in fact the party was organised to celebrate his taking over of the farm from his father?
Why is Aubrey selling half of the dairy herd? Why does the buyer not then turn up as expected?
Why are there full petrol cans in the kitchen? What really happened that fateful night? Is James, Harry’s best friend, hiding something? A question that provokes Clover into using a lit torch in order to get an honest answer from James. Light and water are constant themes.
The discovery of buried (shot) badgers on the farm provide a clue as to why Harry took his own life.
It really is bleak viewing – and highlights the tough lives farmers live most of the time. When one of the herd gives birth to a healthy calf, Aubrey tells Clover to shoot it because it is a boy, not a girl. With the same gun that Harry killed himself with. Clover then proceeds to cremate it in a wheelbarrow with fuel from one of the cans in the farm kitchen.
All rather harrowing, especially for a vegetarian like Clover, but part and parcel of every day farming life. As is the mud, the cold, the mundanity of much farm work and the susceptibility of farming to the force of mother nature.
But the film ensnares you from start to finish. When Aubrey disappears just prior to Harry’s funeral and Clover discovers he has taken a shot-gun from the cupboard, we wait for the sound of the inevitable gun shot. It comes. Has he also committed suicide? At times, The Levelling resembles a horror movie and sets your pulse racing.
The acting is quite brilliant with Ellie Kendrick (Meera Reed, Game of Thrones) outstanding as Clover. A family member who has become an outsider, an outcast. Intelligent and not frightened to challenge anyone – her father especially and James (Jack Holden).
An individual who is stronger than her brother was (she survived boarding school, he didn’t). Hewn out of the same stone as her deceased mother who was the family matriarch and whose death seems to have triggered the start of the farm’s decline. Indeed, Clover is the person best equipped to run the farm, a fact Aubrey acknowledges.
David Troughton as Aubrey is also excellent although for fans of the Archers, it will be difficult to listen to – and watch – him without drawing comparisons with Tony, the character he plays in the Radio 4 series.
Aubrey is a more broken man than Tony although it is a close run thing (Tony was seriously injured in a farming incident, has had major family issues to deal with and problems with his livestock). Troughton makes the transition from radio to film seem effortless. A vulnerable man crumbling from within.
One of the only rays of sunshine (and I am clutching at straws) is provided by family friend Helen (Angela Curran). She provides the Catto’s with home-made shepherd’s pie (Clover can only pick out the potato) and with the only colour in the entire film – the beautiful flowers she has assembled for Harry’s funeral.
Another uplifting moment is the ending which is more healing – despite all the killing – than fractious. Come hell, fire, water and death, love’s sinews are resilient.
The Levelling is sparse cinema but gripping nonetheless. Cinematographer Nanu Segal deserves a special mention for drawing the links between nature and the Catto’s. The magnificent hare running across the field and the drawing of one that hangs on Harry’s bedroom wall. The constant threat left by the floods, a danger which nearly costs both Clover and Milo dearly. The music is also haunting.
Gritty and grimy but gripping nonetheless. A must see film from a British director with a great future ahead of her.
Clover Catto Ellie Kendrick
James Jack Holden
Harry Catto Joe Blakemore
Reverend Trusler Clare Burt
Helen Angela Curran
Aubrey Catto David Troughton
Ian Jones Stephen Chapman
Officer Hembry Joe Attewell
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