It would be wrong to say British film hasn’t dealt with the countryside, but it certainly hasn’t dealt with it in any depth. For the first half-century or so of British cinema it might as well have been a painted backdrop, just some pretty, quintessentially British scenery against which melodramas and comedies could be staged. Later, films for younger, hipper audiences would portray the countryside solely as something terrible which happened to city dwellers, a place for poor, priggish Sergeant Howie to be burned alive, or for Withnail and Marwood to share a disastrous holiday.
With indies like The Goob and Lady Macbeth, Andrew Kötting at his most prolific and Ben Wheatley installed as the presiding deity of it all, we may look back on the 2010s as the decade which changed all that. And in that future, Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling (released on dual format by Peccadillo Pictures) might end up enshrined as the film which best encapsulates this moment in British cinema. A terse, unsentimental tale of rural decline where every image counts, it definitely bears the traces of Leach’s cited influences Bruno Dumont and the Dardenne Brothers. It also has literary touches of Thomas Hardy, or Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill, as well as a lot which feels purely observed, not studied.
It’s only once The Levelling has finished that you realise you’ve watched a kind of dynastic saga, one which sets different generations with different views on what the countryside should be against each other. (Different genders, too – there’s a witty early shot of a high heel abandoned in the mud that speaks volumes about how its female characters have to abandon a little of themselves to fit in here) It stars David Troughton and Ellie Kendrick as Aubrey and Clover Catto, a father and his estranged daughter brought back together by the death of Harry, his son and her little brother. Aubrey is adamant that the death was accidental, but Clover is less convinced.
At the start of the film Aubrey is living in a caravan in the grounds of the family farm. The building itself has been rendered uninhabitable by the Somerset floods of 2013-14 – just one of the many real-life incidents alluded to in Dickson Leach’s script. To watch The Levelling is to realise how little of British public life is reflected in British cinema; the characters of a standard British drama may discuss terrorism, or the financial collapse (and soon Brexit will surely be added to this list) but never the floods, or the badger cull, or foot and mouth disease.
Hearing these things addressed in a movie has an almost uncanny feel. To the best of my knowledge, the only recent British film that’s taken a sympathetic look at the problems of the modern farming industry is Molly Dineen’s 2007 documentary The Lie of the Land. One of that film’s most despairing moments is repeated here, as Clover has to shoot a newborn calf because, as a male, it can’t be used for milk. The scene is fraught already – Aubrey tells her to get it over with before its mother becomes attached, Clover herself is a vegetarian – without the final, devastating detail. The gun she is using is the same one that killed her brother.
In one early scene Clover brings Aubrey’s neglected dog into the house, and is horrified to find it drawn to Harry’s old room, cordoned off by police tape and with his blood still staining the walls. Most of the horror and anguish in The Levelling exists on the level of those dark stains; not quite identifiable but possessed of a dreadful, ominous quality. As a writer and director Leach treads a careful line, including enough dramatic incident to keep the film pacy and interesting but being aware that these people are not given to grand, melodramatic gestures. Her greatest ally in this is Kendrick, whose face is so expressive in repose that it becomes utterly devastating once the emotions, like those flood waters, burst their banks. An incredibly powerful film all-round, and one which makes it irresistible to speculate where its director will go next.