Directed by Hope Dickson Leach
Starring: Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton, Jack Holden, Joe Blakemore
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Review by Ryan Ogden.
A true success story of indie filmmaking, The Levelling returns home from screenings at Toronto for a nationwide cinematic release. Thanks to the ever-brilliant Tyneside Cinema, I was lucky enough to catch a special Q&A screening with writer/director Hope Dickson Leach a day prior to this release: a massive launch which, judging by Leach’s incredibly humble introduction to the film, is still a source of excitement and disbelief to its makers.
She needn’t be so modest. The Levelling is fantastic. Inspired by French cinema, it’s a social realist drama (“you don’t get much of that in British cinema,” observes Leach) following Clover Catto (Ellie Kendrick), who returns to her family farm – and emotionally withdrawn father Aubrey (a superb David Troughton) – following the sudden suicide of her brother Harry. It’s a film about grief and responsibility, and carrying on in the absence of a recent loss – an aspect of the film that’s as central to Kendrick’s performance as it is to Troughton’s. “She’s brilliant,” the director gushes of her star, because “she’s pushing you out all the time.” Holding the audience back from the private minds of her characters was evidently important to Leach’s direction, and it’s a highly effective approach that’s emotive in itself – but it’s in the moments that the facade falls away and emotions spill over that the film and its central performances truly shine. “[Ellie] created an entire history for her character,” Leach explains. “It was at the point where you would wave [a prop] in front of her face, and she’d break down in tears.”
It’s a sombre viewing experience for sure, but there’s beauty to be found in the complex relationships between characters – and the misty murk of the rural setting. There’s something magical about the pragmatism of a low-budget production, as Leach rightly points out: “the countryside is brilliant, because you get beautiful shots for nothing.” From rolling hills to snuffling hares, Nanu Segal’s gorgeous and grim cinematography effectively transports you to Aubrey’s misanthropic world of repressed emotion.
Between the director and star, producers Anna Griffin and Rachel Robey, production designer Sarah Finlay and others, The Levelling has a very prominently female production team. And if we didn’t already know it, then this film’s pure quality and freshness provide yet more proof that this sort of representation is something the industry desperately needs. “It’s not a deliberate effort,” Leach stresses. “I think there’s still this unconscious idea of, ‘oh, they can’t be qualified, they’re a woman’… When you let go of that prejudice, and just look at what someone’s going to bring to the production, more women start to pop up.” It’s as simple as that – finding the right person for the job. One thing that’s clear throughout the Q&A is that the director is very in tune with her collaborators and what makes a strong team, as she speaks at length about the importance of accommodating people’s needs: making a film shouldn’t have to take over a person’s life. “We don’t want anyone to burn themselves out,” Leach summarises. “We’re creating culture, we sort of should have lives!” It’s about more than just women in film, then. It’s about letting people’s lives enrich a production. As the director puts it, “we want human beings in filmmaking.” And The Levelling is all the better for it.