When the UK box office chart comes in next week, I’d expect Alien: Covenant to be comfortably ensconced in the top slot, with the likes of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2, Beauty & The Beast and The Boss Baby scrapping over what it leaves behind. And I’d wager that, with a limited screen count, comparably tiny promotional spend, and little more than word of mouth to send it on its way, The Levelling will do well to get anywhere near the top 20.
In truth, it took a bit of digging just to be able to get to review the film, let alone find it on a cinema screen around the country. But this is the kind of production that needs film lovers to get out and push, and do their bit. I’d argue It’s the film many of us hope to see on a blind night out at the cinema: a feature that sinks its hooks into you, doesn’t let go, and takes you utterly by surprise, knowing barely anything about it going in. It’ll be rattling around your head non-stop on the way out.
So what is it? Well, it’s a superb drama, the feature debut, incredibly, of Hope Dickson Leach, a film that at times had me tensing up as if I was watching a taut horror. And yet it’s a family piece on a Somerset farm, where imperfect people try and piece together a way to go forward in life.
It would be correct to assume that, beneath the not very impressive facade, it’s not a happy farm the film is set on. It’s one still feeling the aftermath of floods the year before, and the ramifications of an insurance company that’s refused to cough up and cover the bills. After a distinctly unsettling sequence pre-titles, we meet Clover – played by Game Of Thrones’ Ellie Kendrick – who arrives home for her brother’s funeral. The brother who was supposed to take over the farm from their dad, a father who Clover struggles to even call dad. Instead, she calls him by his name: Aubrey.
Aubrey is portrayed with a quiet sadness by David Troughton. Troughton’s gait, his haunted looks, his attempts to jolly people along and carry on as normal are cover for a family story beset by discomfort and unhappiness. He also wraps his tongue around the word ‘bloody’ better than anyone you’ll see on screen this year.
But then Ellie Kendrick is even better, and that’s no small feat. Hers is the character who left this world behind, opting to go to college, studying to become a vet. As she peels back what’s happened whilst she’s been away, Kendrick’s exquisite work showcases the emotional seams in Clover. The scars of old, the scraps of anger, the pull of responsibility and the wish just to run away in the other direction.
Nobody’s perfect here, and not in a forced way. It’s primarily a two hander, with fleeting characters moving in and out as they build up to a funeral, and both Kendrick and Troughton convey so much, even when they’re not speaking. I wondered at one point if this all could work as a play, but I quickly dismissed the thought. Notwithstanding the grounding work that Dickson Leach does in soaking up the grim, squelchy surroundings of a farm past its best, it’s her close-ups. It’s her holding the frame on the faces of actors who know what they’re doing, and giving us the detail of their expression. It’s the cutting away once the point is made. There’s so much underlying confidence here.
It’s a sparse film at times, and a short one. Its occasional bleakness clearly puts a ceiling on its appeal, too, I’d expect. Yet I’m selling what Hope Dickson Leach has achieved short. Because this isn’t a kitchen sink British drama. Rather, it’s a superb, unsettling film, where I sat expecting things to go pop any minute, never really sure where, tonally, it was going to pull me.
In the best sense, I could never really relax into The Levelling. I suspect the people able to find it on a big screen in the next week or two will feel the same way.
The film’s website has details of screenings. Find it here.