The Levelling (UK 2016)

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Repressed masculinity

During the British New Wave of the late-fifties and early-sixties, ‘it’s grim up north’ was something of a trope; three recent fiction films suggest tough lives are now in the countryside. The Levelling follows God’s Own Country and Dark River (both UK, 2017) in representing traumatic lives on farms. The latter two are set ‘up north’, in Yorkshire; whilst the film under discussion is on the Somerset ‘levels’. I enjoyed the three films all of which deal with repression of some kind: sexuality, sexual abuse and male stoicism. It is the latter in The Levelling.

Ellie Kendrick plays Clover, a trainee vet, who returns home after the suicide of her brother. Her blustering dad, Aubrey (David Troughton, above), matter-of-factly tries to deal with what’s happening whilst ‘in denial’. Slowly, Clover’s doggedness uncovers the events that led to her brother’s death. Both actors are superb.

The film is writer-director Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature and superbly done it is. She cites the Dardennes brothers as an influence and early on the handheld camera follows Clover through the farm; my heart sank at this, my least favourite shot, though one the Dardennes have used effectively, but it doesn’t overstay its ‘welcome’. Leach captures the grimness, and the lack of sentimentality, of life on an economically challenged farm well. Dark River highlighted more the difficulties of making farming pay other than through ‘industrialisation’. However, all three films are melodramas so any politics is worked through the personal rather than looking at the macro issues of society. That said, God’s Own Country does include a scene in a local pub emphasising the hostility of some toward migrants.

Another recent film also dealing with the countryside, though in documentary form, was Paul Wright’s Arcadia (UK, 2017). Wright used ‘found footage’ to create a poetic montage of the changing attitudes towards nature in Britain. There’s some striking footage: a single black child in a school; a ’60s vox pop where the speaker claims he doesn’t care if birds disappear; a trippy hippy who says he loves ‘everyone’. As is the way of the form, it’s difficult to isolate the film’s ‘preferred reading’ (what it’s trying to say) but the impression I got was the countryside is a place where urban inhibitions can be shed (that’s probably a townie’s reading).

God’s Own Country achieved respectable box office in the UK for a low budget film, but most of the film-watching population will not have seen any of the four. Hence although all four films interrogate our relationship with nature they are unlikely to affect the zeitgeist. With global warming, looming Brexit and increasing urbanisation, it is important we (specifically in the UK but everywhere is affected) understand the natural world in 2019, so congratulations to all the filmmakers for speaking about our place and time. The Levelling is currently available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for the next 26 days.

5 comments

  1. Roy Stafford

    Since you don’t listen to The Archers on Radio 4, you presumably didn’t experience the frisson of excitement caused by the sight of Tony Archer on screen as the father? I do wonder how much overlap there has been between the audiences of The Levelling and The Archers.

  2. john David hall

    On a pedantic note, The Levelling only follows God’s Own Country and Dark River perhaps in order of your viewing them. It preceded both films and imho was better than both. In fact, my viewing of Dark River was affected throughout by a nagging feeling that The Levelling made the same points without the same level of family conflict and general histrionics.

    • nicklacey

      Hi, it’s true that was my viewing order as I missed ‘The Levelling’ in the cinemas. It’s interesting to consider how the viewing of films with similar themes affects readings. I’m not sure I’d agree about ‘histrionics’ which suggests disapproval of the melodrama!!!

      • john David hall

        As far as Dark River goes, miserabilism or melodrama, you take your pick. I did enjoy God’s Own Country though which had fewer one-note characters on show and benefitted from the great Ian Hart and Gemma Jones.

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