There are bigger entities landing at your local multiplex this week. An ancient indestructible franchise is re-re-(re-)booted in Alien: Covenant. In Jawbone, it’s seconds out for yet another boxing movie. Miss Sloane is that non-staple of the repertoire, a glossy feminist thriller about public relations. Something there for almost everyone. But there’s also a low-budget British film called The Levelling, which has a very Brexit-y theme — the travails of the farming industry — so let’s pull on our wellies and have a gander.
The title alludes to the Somerset Levels, in the news in 2014 when rivers rose to drown the nether parts of southern England. ‘Save our village, dredge the river,’ says a forlorn sign in an inert wintry landscape. A mechanical digger stands sentry over the dread waterway like a rusting tyrannosaur. But there’s a more personal tragedy afoot at a farm blighted by the floods. A young farmer called Harry has died after a Rabelaisian all-night celebration. He shot himself in the lav where, behind police exclusion tape, his blood still grips the peeling wall. His grieving sister Clover returns from veterinary college, nursing a simmering rage at her old man Aubrey (full marks for all these authentic West Country names).
Aubrey’s reduced to living in a caravan, half the herd is to be sold to release capital, and any number of badgers have been furtively executed to ward off bovine TB (unsuccessfully). The prodigal daughter mucks in with milking and ditch-digging, but can’t make any headway finding out why her brother died: was it an accident or suicide? One suspects that even drunk farmers don’t mishandle shotguns in loos.
The Levelling is the debut feature of Hope Dickson Leach. Her script is as stripped to the bone as last night’s spit-roasted carcass, so clues about this failed family are hard to come by, especially as Aubrey, whose grief is subsumed into more pressing agricultural grievances, keeps changing the subject. As an anatomy of dysfunction it doesn’t plough down as deep as it aspires to, and puts too much trust in the dramatic tactic of withholding (a dead mother is barely mentioned). Jez Butterworth, the great contemporary poet of rural isolation, would have unearthed greater riches in the story’s clodded furrows (and maybe even the odd laugh). But truths are confronted in awkward blurts and we edge towards a redemptive reckoning.
Mostly, this is a painterly exercise in grim atmospherics. Flocks wing it across glum chrome skies. A hare twitches in close-up. The spaniel almost drowns. Sorrow seeps from the rutted pathways of the sodden flatlands. The demoralising farmyard is a textbook cluster of knackered barns and ditched machinery. Hardy would gladly torture Tess in just such a dead end.
With British films like this, low budget really does mean lowest of the low. Probably you could spend more on an important kitchen island or a self-cleaning lawnmower. One minor character — a farmhand — explains that his like haven’t been paid in months; the economics might be similar on films like this. And raising money to make them won’t get any easier without access to Creative Europe, the EU’s funding arm. Filming and farming may fetch up in the same sort of boat.
It’s not quite clear who The Levelling is for. Farmers will hardly herd themselves to the nearest arthouse to catch it. Perhaps it’s got half an eye on the Game of Thrones demographic as Clover is well played by Ellie Kendrick, a dark-eyed wisp whom dungeons-and-dragons fans will know as Meera Reed. Aubrey is played by the redoubtable David Troughton, a human tree trunk with a sad clown’s mug. According to the Internet Movie Database, on its opening weekend in the US The Levelling took $160. But such films must be made. Otherwise ambitious, original young British filmmakers won’t get a start and the only stories to make it to the screen will be the same old ones about aliens and boxers.