Countryfail: Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling (2016) – Blu-ray review
Cold Comfort Farm: the Unrated Edition – a mournful elegy for a rural community left to sink in the mud, with only rage and despair for company.
(Hope Dickson Leach, 2016)
American cinema has created an entire genre – the Western – to celebrate its vast, untamed landscapes. In Britain, the acres of land given over to agriculture have made it much harder to forge a lasting on-screen legacy. In reality, British filmmakers tend to disregard it entirely, unless it’s as a place where unspeakable horrors take place well outside the suburban norm.
Fair play to Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling, then, for taking a fresh look beyond the A-roads. This is an unsentimental, cool-headed depiction of the divide between city and countryside, and the terrible impact this fractured relationship has on the psyche of generations who give their lives to the soil only to be ignored by the population their labours help to feed.
There’s plenty of thought gone into the creation of a family facing untold pressures. They’ve been left to fend for themselves over rural flooding – the insurance company won’t pay out and the fields are full of glass. On the other hand, the law leaves them at the risk of contaminated livestock or prosecution for illegally culling badgers. No wonder farmer Aubrey (David Troughton) is struggling to pass on the farm to his son Harry, even before the latter’s death by shotgun blast – an accident, or suicide?
While these are themes that percolate the news agenda, there’s little that is overtly political on screen, because Dickson Leach has reframed them as a modern spin on a timeless tragedy. Our entry point is Clover (Ellie Kendrick), the prodigal daughter who has moved away to study veterinary medicine and returns for her brother’s funeral to find her childhood home in freefall. That leads to strained relations with her dad, whose push/pull feelings have been exacerbated by repressed grief over the death of his wife, and now his son. He wants her to help on the farm, but he paid for the education that took her away because he knows it’s no life for a youngster in the 21st century.
So the film captures both the timelessness of the countryside and the very modern challenges it faces. Visually, this might be a Hardy adaptation in shots of wildlife or countryside walks, but Dickson Leach strips the film of glamour. If British towns have kitchen sink realism, then this is septic tank realism, where a girl might be asked to shoot a calf for having the temerity to be born a boy.
And the acting is phenomenal. Troughton has never had an opportunity like this on the big screen, and turns Aubrey into an ineffectual tyrant, using passive-aggressive neediness to keep his livelihood afloat. And Kendrick is extraordinary as a capable, intelligent woman whose psychological demons come flooding back the longer she spends in the place she’s spent a live trying to escape from.
The Levelling is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 17 July.
Tagged British Cinema