If you want to dismiss The Levelling as purely an exercise in misery porn, then maybe you need to dig a little deeper. Actually, you should dig a little deeper. Because while there’s a sad tale at its heart, there’s also a lot to say about the subtle and graceful ways it handles grief and silent resentments. Very economically pitched after a mysterious and hedonistic prologue that’s brought to us in bursts of action, Hope Dickson Leach gives us the lowdown: a farmer’s daughter named Clover (Ellie Kendrick) comes home after her brother Harry dies violently; their father Aubrey (David Troughton), stoic and tired, claims it was an accident after a wild night of partying, but we soon learn that Harry put the gun in his own mouth—willingly. Why Aubrey is seemingly unconcerned about his son’s tragic demise is a question that flickers in the background as Clover wanders the property and finds it rundown and neglected. Leach’s script is keener on letting emotions and lives organically develop rather than bombarding us with exposition, and through the decay and greyness of the Somerset landscapes, we are enmeshed in a dysfunctional world that feels wholly real, bogged down by authentic tribulations that flare up at the tensest of moments and suck the air dry of goodwill. We know those feelings. We’ve experienced them before. And hence, the film’s precision cuts us all the more deeply.
The familiarity of the film may be its biggest weakness, since tales of homecomings brought on by the death of a loved one have been told and retold time and again. Consequently, the freshness factor is missing, and some resolutions can be seen coming because of that. Yet the destitution, the filth, and the wetness of the ground add welcome textures to this story’s environment, giving The Levelling a certain pride in maintaining such unglamorous edges. Indeed, whereas many homecoming tales end with nary a piece of grit under the fingernails, this one has grit that cannot be scraped down and washed off. If there are resolutions, they are extremely tenuous, and the sun still refuses to shine after the greatest torments cease. Which, in a way, is a comfort, since having it shine would make this film much less authentic. And its authenticity is its finest asset.