The Levelling, 2016.
Directed by Hope Dickson Leach.
Starring Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton, Jack Holden, and Joe Blakemore.
Trainee vet Clover (Ellie Kendrick) returns home to the family farm in Somerset following the death of her brother. She finds the farm in chaos and her father a shadow of his former self. Their relationship has been fractured for some time, but this could be an opportunity for them to settle their differences.
Crumbling urban landscapes are usually the default setting for gritty, emotionally charged British dramas. But, for her first feature, The Levelling, Hope Dickson Leach has turned that on its head and moved to the land of soaps like The Archers and Emmerdale. And she’s done it to startling effect.
Here, the backdrop is the Somerset Levels, specifically the devastating floods of 2014, with a farm on its knees as a result. Its family are in much the same place, but for different reason. The place is strewn with debris, there’s mud everywhere and the ground floor of the farmhouse is unhabitable, so Ambrose (David Troughton) is making do in a caravan. Yet there’s no sign of any work going on to get the place back on its feet. And that’s because he, and his recently returned daughter Clover (Game of Thrones‘ Kendrick), are coming to terms with the death of the third member of the family, Clover’s brother Harry (Joe Blakemore). He’d taken over the farm from his father, which means that Ambrose is not only having to cope with his own grief, he simply doesn’t know where to start with getting everything up and running again. And he doesn’t know if he wants to.
His biggest problem, and the one he keeps trying to ignore, is his fractured relationship with Clover. They’ve never been especially close – not to be confused with not caring about each other – and the distance between them has become more of a gulf as she’s grown older. She’s never called him “father” or “dad”, only “Ambrose”, and now, as she trains to be a vet, there are physical miles between them as well. Their struggle to overcome their differences is agonizingly slow and isn’t helped by Ambrose’s changeable, scotch-influenced moods.
Underneath the bitterness and grief run issues affecting the farming community. Rural suicides, for instance, which were on the increase at the time, and the general hardships faced by farmers in making a living. They’re supposed to be the guardians of the land, nurturing growth in its many forms, but this farm and its family are hanging on by a thread. Clover has to shoot a bull calf – there’s no money in them – there are dead badgers buried in the mud, dairy cattle are being taken away for slaughter. There’s hardly anything left, except for the saturated land and the wrecked house. Even if the floods hadn’t happened, how much longer the farm would have survived is anybody’s guess.
Most of the characters are on the periphery, with the exception of Harry’s friend James (Jack Holden), because all the attention is on Kendrick and Troughton (a veteran actor best known, ironically, for his current role as Tony Archer in The Archers). From their present distance and anger – her memories of going away to boarding school and their diametrically opposed recollections of her feelings on the subject – it all underlines the lack of understanding between them and their mutual pain. Both deliver strong, emotional performances is what comes close to being a two-hander.
The Levelling is a multi-layered film in terms of its emotions and storylines. It takes its time, squelching through the mud of the farm and the father/daughter relationship and is a dour, sobering but very satisfying experience. Farming soaps may be trying to be more contemporary and relevant, but The Archers this most certainly is not.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★