Thursday 14 June 2018

We Don't Go Back #84: The Levelling (2016)

The thing about British folk horror is that it comes from a specific time, a specific place. Folk horror is a function of hauntology, hauntology being that idea that we are haunted by unresolved history, that our landscape, whether urban or rural, has the ghosts of past sins encoded in its fabric. We only notice that history is unresolved when the present gives us reason for unrest. And when we feel that unrest, that feeling that perhaps the situation in which we're living is perhaps a little bit, you know, rubbish, then we're haunted.

And when our society is haunted, our media reflect that back at us. And the folk horror boom of the last decade or so is driven by nostalgia, but it's a specific form of nostalgia, it's the feeling that we can make sense of the present by tying it to another past era that has a similar feeling of our own. British media especially has, for the last couple of decades, but recently more than ever, been pushing hard into replicating the 1970s in more ways than horror films and serious dramas. What is The Great British Bake Off, other than a present day mashup of the 70s talent show, game show and cooking show? And speaking of Bake Offs, Mel and Sue are, I hear, hosting a revamped Generation Game, that most quintessentially 70s of game shows. And these things, as comforting and fun as they are, come from the same unease, the same climate that also gave us A Field in England or Detectorists. They come from a world that isn't certain, that deals with hauntings by choosing what it's going to be haunted by. And of course this goes for the arts too, it goes for film.

One of the annoying things about being aware of any cultural or subcultural movement is that it inevitably encourages its fans to gatekeep. So with folk horror fans, the very real temptation is to act like the Folk Horror Police: this is folk horror, this isn't, this isn't, this is. And on the one hand, you have a conception too strict and you wind up just ending up watching thirty. identical. films. On the other, you throw the net too wide, you wind up just including everything you like.

And I mean, I'm in the camp that's all for casting a wider net (inasmuch as a binary between the two things even exists), if only because I see parallels and alternative contexts, and because the idea of hauntology, and of the juxtaposition of the prosaic and the uncanny, that appeals to me, and I have the sort of associative hummingbird imagination that flutters around and never quite settles, I suppose, and that's not a brag, because concentration is not one of my strong suits, and focus isn't either.
The point of this is that a lot of the things I've looked at in this project aren't very folk, and a lot of them aren't very horror, but I still feel they have that common thread, and I think that finding what that thread is, and where it's drawn from, that's interesting and worthwhile in its own right, and so that makes looking at a film like The Levelling worthwhile. And when you look at a film like The Levelling, you're not looking at a folk horror film, but you are nonetheless looking at a film produced by the conditions that produce folk horror.

Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature is a thing of tragic beauty, a heart-rending family drama of raw perfection and impressive restraint. Almost-qualified vet Clover (Ellie Kendrick) returns home to the family farm, for her brother Harry is dead, and here is her dad, Aubrey (David Troughton), brusque and cheery and brittle, who greets her effusively but never really makes a show of affection with any depth. And Clover's attitude to him, that's at best complex, so the first thing she says to anyone about Aubrey is when someone asks her if they can help at the time, and she says, "Can you make it my dad instead of my brother?"

Harry is dead. He was at a party, a wild, booze-fuelled party, a celebration of his being given the farm – we see flashes of it at the start of the film, and there's something pagan about it, a wildness that parallels the proximity of wildlife – and, drunk, he got hold of the shotgun, and he shot himself in the face. Aubrey insists it was an accident, and Clover concludes quickly that it was a suicide, and then much of the rest of the film is spent with her piecing together why he would have done it on the night the farm became his.
There is a way you could reasonably expect a film like this to go, and here's where it falls into my field of interest, because it carries the visual and aural signifiers of a particular form of contemporary filmmaking. Or, in more direct language, it looks and sounds like a folk horror film, and if you'd only seen the first five minutes, with its fragmented scenes of bacchanalian violence and close ups of wildlife, and its growing sense of unease, I'd forgive you for thinking that this film would be about paganism, or witchcraft, or murder.

And it's not that The Levelling is even trying for a single second to look or act like a folk horror film. This is quite simply how you make rural-set British films in the second decade of the 21st century. And that's not even a criticism, because The Levelling is beautiful to look at and powerfully made. It's fully one of the best films I've watched in the last two years. It's not even folk horror adjacent, really, apart from the way it engages with issues of the landscape, and the community, and our identity in relation to both of those things, and those are the underlying issues from which folk horror is drawn. It comes from the same place.

A folk horror film would concentrate on the discovery of the truth behind Harry's death, and perhaps draw some terrible revelation from that. But the uncovering of that motive, while it provides the structure on which much of the film hangs, isn't the central point of the film. And while the film has a specific context (the floods that plagued Somerset in 2014, and the damage they wrought on the area's rural economy) and approaches the politics of that, again, that's the background, the scene.

The film is about how Clover and Aubrey process their grief, because Harry is dead. And they have to find a way to rebuild their relationship, because in some ways Aubrey and Clover are all each of them has. Aubrey is a former military man, and he's not a man who is any good at showing emotion, or processing grief, and Clover is self-sufficient and carries a deal of resentment over the way that she feels she was treated in relation to her her brother. She was sent to boarding school, and hated every second of it, and didn't even get to come home, even when her mother was dead, and her brother was allowed to come home after a single term because he couldn't cope with it. Harry was, in his parents’ opinion, soft, and so in a sense he was coddled, which is both the result and cause of that, and, we realise, perhaps what led to his death.
At one point, Aubrey, without thinking, says to James the farmhand (Jack Holden), “Oh, don't be a girl, Harry,” the sort of line that slips out without him even thinking, so swiftly that he doesn't even realise he's said it, his son's name being the most natural thing in the world to follow the formulation “Don't be a girl” with, and that simple slip tells a young man's lifetime. Clover, independent, self-reliant and the product of a childhood spent feeling horribly abandoned, is the same: Aubrey considered her to be, although she never realised it, the strong and self-reliant one, and she is likewise the cause and result of that. We see a raw conversation in the attic, full of the misinterpretations and misrememberings that litter our lives, demonstrating with heartbreaking economy and grace how two people might recall a pivotal moment in their relationship entirely differently. And at the end of it, Clover puts out a hand and helps her father up. And it's beautiful. It's perfect. And it's true. Clover is her father's daughter, and you can see it in the way she relates to the other characters, especially James, who responds to her in a way not dissimilar to the way he responds to Aubrey. James was close to Harry, and is the nearest to knowing why Harry did what he did – towards the end, when Clover gets out of him what she needs to piece together the truth, the moment she's got what she needs to know, she just says, abruptly, “It wasn't your fault,” and walks out of the room, leaving him in pieces muttering a strangled “Fuck you,” to the door. She is her father's daughter.

The Levelling doesn't have a single moment that doesn't ring true. Clover and Aubrey are entirely believable characters, and the history of their relationship with each other and with Harry feels like a real family. It has vital things to say about parents and children, brothers and sisters. Watching it was cathartic: I recalled painful moments of my own. And in the end, whatever The Levelling is, it's a true film. It's true. You should see it.

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