There is a recurring bit of dream-like surrealism in Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature The Levelling. It’s an image of a hare struggling to stay afloat in water, one in which, as captured by cinematographer Nanu Segal, the hare is suspended in ominously inky-black surroundings with only a pool of light shining from above. The symbolic connotations of the image are strikingly multifaceted: Not only does the water literally evoke the 2014 Somerset Levels floods that darkened the fortunes of Clover’s (Ellie Kendrick) father Aubrey’s (David Troughton) farm, but, more poetically, it evokes Clover’s own internal struggle to balance her desires (and those of her family) with their livelihood. The latter symbolic connotation comes to a head with the death of her brother, Harry (Joe Blakemore), who was set to take over the farm.
That twice-repeated image stands out in a film that otherwise sticks to an aesthetic of earthy naturalism: handheld camerawork, stationary shots framed behind doorways, dialogue scenes crackling with tension even in silences between characters. Despite its familiarity, that naturalism bears a primal force in keeping with the story Leach tells and the character dynamics she explores. The Levelling is, in part, about a character making gestures toward reacquainting herself with working on the land, and under Leach’s unsparing eye, farming life is presented in all its muddy, dirty griminess, punctuated by the occasional animal death. No wonder Clover—herself a vegetarian and a passionate animal-rights activist—desired to leave such a lifestyle behind in order to pursue her veterinary studies.
But as a kind of procedural, The Levelling is at its most gripping, especially when Clover discovers that Aubrey is most likely lying when he insists that Harry’s death was an accident, instead of the suicide that even the coroner concludes it is. Her discovery of the reasons for her father’s denial becomes the film’s main narrative thrust. Yet, even as she’s uncovering the mysteries surrounding her brother’s death, she’s also trying to unlock deeper psychological conundrums: of her father’s real attitude toward her, and, perhaps most importantly, of her thoughts and feelings about her family, their legacy and her potential place in it.
Leach’s approach to telling this quasi-detective story is quietly impressive in her attention to detail, in which she proves skillful at parceling out information via oblique images and lines of dialogue to keep the suspense level consistent throughout. Perhaps Leach is a bit too oblique overall: Her economy of means is admirable (the film runs only 83 minutes), but one gets the sense that, given more time to truly immerse ourselves in these characters and this milieu, the drama may have resonated more deeply than it ultimately does.
Still, The Levelling at least has Ellie Kendrick (who most people may know as Meera Reed on Game of Thrones) anchoring the film with a performance that offers a complex, poignant portrait of a character working through multiple levels of anguished self-discovery as she deals with grief. Even if the film’s cumulative impact is less overwhelming than it could have been, Kendrick’s displays of strength and vulnerability are vivid enough to linger long after the short film’s concluded.
Director: Hope Dickson Leach
Writer: Hope Dickson Leach
Starring: Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton, Jack Holden, Joe Blakemore
Release Date: March 24, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and The Village Voice. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.