The Levelling

There are many different aspects of film making. Joss Whedon once stated that this is why it is the greatest art form; because it incorporates so many of the others. The two most important things though are probably story and performance. I don’t say this to lift the contribution of the writer and the actors above that of the director. Good directors clearly play a huge part in bringing these components effectively to the screen and the greats can take a standard story and make it sublime. Whoever is responsible though, without a well composed plot and convincing portrayals of the characters a film cannot truly succeed. Often the best movies will deftly employ music, dialogue, set design, special effects, costume, cinematography and sound as well but many that excel here, films like Avatar, Prometheus and Transformers, fail because they can’t get the story and the acting right. Conversely films like Room, Moonlight and Spotlight depend on these elements and if you get just them right it can be enough. The Levelling, in select cinemas and on demand now, absolutely excels in these two areas.

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The film centres around a young woman returning to the family farm from veterinary school following the sudden death of her brother. It is entirely set in this one rural location with a main cast of three, including someone with a supporting part in Game of Thrones and a stage and TV actor whose dad was once Doctor Who, and it is just brilliant. 

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This is the debut feature of Hope Dickson Leach who found considerable festival success with a number of shorts that she made while studying at Columbia University. Her IMDb profile is still pretty sparse but it is clear that The Levelling marks the arrival of a significant cinematic talent. From the second the protagonist Clover, played with understated authenticity by Ellie Kendrick, arrives back among the world of rusty metal, uneven concrete, mud and cattle that she grew up in you are gripped by a suspense, emotion, compassion and anguish rarely generated outside of novels. 

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There are a number of ways to read the title, it could be about gender roles or professional ambition Vs family responsibility, but for me it is refers to the point in life when you’ve grown into an adult and your parents have aged and started to need more support and you meet in the middle, your dependency roles beginning to switch. Clover’s father, portrayed by David Troughton, is slowly crumbling under the weight of stress, loss and pride while she is having to step up, letting go of the manners, comfort, arrogance and indignation of youth. There is a wonderful moment that illustrates this when she is trying to persuade someone to help cover up some illegal activities on the farm by saying, without a hint of wryness, “you’ll be my best friend”.

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Alongside the social realism there is poetry in how writer/director Dickson Leach presents her narrative. The film is subtly separated into chapters with occasional shots of animals that in no way reflect the style of the rest of the movie. Hares feature significantly here possibly referencing this animal’s symbolic association with rebirth and resurrection which would work in relation to Clover’s character arc. Water and fire are also important to the story in terms of their ability to simultaneously purify and destroy, doing neither to sufficient satisfaction. The death that drives everything takes place in a manner and place involving both. The film also plays to ideas of the literary pastoral tradition, bearing similarities to Far From the Madding Crowd, but exposing the artificial nature of the concept, especially in relation to modern Britain. 

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The Levelling is a subtle, astounding, heartbreaking, moving, layered and rewarding piece of work. It’s a small film in terms of budget and scope but it still has much to teach the vast majority of other movies. Story and performance people, story and performance.

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The Ripley Factor:
There is an easy feminist reading connected to a woman’s capabilities in running a farm and the assumptions and social expectations surrounding this. (As I said, Far From the Madding Crowd.) Like everything in the film though this is not overplayed.

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Is this one for the kids?
The Levelling is rated 15. There isn’t any nudity or (on screen) violence but it is potentially upsetting in its tone and depiction of grief. 

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