There’s a briefly joyous interlude in The Levelling when Clover and her father, farmer Aubrey, find a cow and her newborn calf. The calf is adorable, just starting to stagger up on its little legs, and it seems like a moment of hope, until it turns out to be a boy and its fate is sealed. Oh and there’s a shepherd’s pie. But as far as happy moments go, they are pretty much it.
This is an emotionally draining movie. To say I came out wanting a drink and a cigarette and maybe a litter of kittens to play with is an understatement. Set on the Somerset Levels a few months after the 2014 floods that have left Aubrey (David Troughton) living in a static caravan on his farm, the family house still damaged and the insurance company refusing to pay out, the setting is downbeat and the story one of suicide and a collapsing farming economy.
But it’s still excellent filmmaking, with moving performances and a painfully accurate portrayal of family relationships, already frayed, threatening to unravel altogether under such pressures.
Clover (Ellie Kendrick) is a nearly-qualified vet, called home to the farm after her brother Harry kills himself. We already know there’s tension between her and her father: “Can you make it my dad instead of my brother? Can you make that happen?” she asks of someone offering condolences. Let’s face it, it’s really only when we have the protection of outspoken grief that we can truly say what we think.
Their mother is already long dead, their father not so much uniformly taciturn as voluble about farming necessities but rarely speaking about feelings and family. And when they do discuss them, his version of past events is very different to Clover’s.
The farm is Aubrey’s though he had tried giving it to Harry, only to find his son dead from self-inflicted gunshot wounds in the waterlogged house at the end of a supposedly celebratory party, a party that turned into a bacchanalian feast of drunken, naked young farmers walking over hot coals after the oldies had gone to bed.
Farming in the UK has been hard to make work for decades now, and Aubrey has further pressures including TB and swathes of land still filled with rubbish from the floods. Though at one point they must have been wealthy, as both children had been sent to boarding school.
Aubrey obviously found fatherhood difficult though it has given him some insight into parent-child relationships: “I never knew how I made my mother so angry til I had you tell me how to run the farm” he says to his his daughter. And the distance between he and Clover is still a gulf; she calls him by his first name, and at one point he leaves a note for her signed only with his surname.
There’s a regularity and repetition to farming work that must appeal to a man who can’t talk about the twists and turns of feelings and emotions. Or maybe it happened the other way round as the rote and rules required of a well-run dairy farm (mechanised milking, at the same time every day), combined with the unbearable constant of trying to balance rows of figures that just won’t add up, made Aubrey into the emotionally-retentive man he is.
And actually it is Clover who seems like the lost, unanchored soul, despite her father being faced with financial disaster and a farm that has turned into a white elephant. Not even she knows where she belongs any more and she can’t even eat the food – neighbours from childhood rally round, with stews and shepherd pies, but Clover is a vegetarian.
Clover is angry with her dad but it turns out people are angry with Clover too: “Why did you never come home? After the floods?” asks James, her brother’s friend who is helping on the farm. Clover seems to have been determined to avoid her childhood home, though she works with animals and has a name from nature, unlike her brother Harry.
James (Jack Holden) is a frequent visitor, and has been digging out damaged fields. He helps Clover with a vast ditch, and it’s then that she discovers the dead badgers – shot, but by who exactly? Badgers carry TB and killing them is illegal but desperate times lead to desperate measures.
But the funeral is looming and she repeatedly has to press her father into making plans for it. Visiting her brother in the undertaker’s, she holds his hand while leaving the rest of his body covered by the protective white sheet. But reminders are never far away – his blood in the downstairs toilet still spreads over the walls, like the flood damage still not cleaned up as no one knows who should bear the cost.
The Levelling is set in this decade though it has the realism and the colour palette of the 70s or 80s – I wouldn’t have been surprised to see kids on Raleigh Choppers cycling past, off for an unsupervised day in the woods. The rains have long since stopped but the scenery still has that dull, damp look where nothing has really dried out and no one has really moved on despite their best attempts. Everyone is in wellies and spattered trousers and practical knitwear, trudging across mud-streaked yards.
The measuredly downbeat performances from Ellie Kendrick and David Troughton are quietly impressive, with Kendrick shining like a far-off star. Despite the occasional interlude from James, their neighbours and a lone lorry driver, this is a two-hander between Clover and Aubrey, as they try to find a way to move forward as they’re all the other has left.
There’s a slight predictability about the ending (Tolstoy may have said that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, though actually films about family struggles often seem to pan out the same) but the perfectly positioned half-silent heartbreak, and the assured direction, more than make up for that.