The Glasgow Film Festival offers something for everyone, but each year there are films which arrive having created a buzz through word-of-mouth and critical reception. This certainly applies to The Levelling which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and it has been earning rave reviews wherever it has been shown.
The film’s writer and director Hope Dickson Leach was kind enough to take time before the festival to talk to Scots Whay Hae! about the film.
SWH!: Could you give a brief synopsis of The Levelling?
HDL: The Levelling is a drama which plays out as a thriller about a young woman (Ellie Kendrick – see right) who returns to the family dairy farm to confront her father (David Troughton – see bottom of page) about the death of her brother. She had been told it was an accident but it soon becomes apparent that it was a suicide. So the story is her trying to work out why her brother would take his own life and this investigation leads to a change in her life and in the relationship with her father.
SWH! Why did you want to tell this story?
HDL: I’ve always been very interested in stories about grief – about the response to tragic events and how they in turn have the potential to affect your life. I think there is a period of time after such events when you have to examine what happened and also yourself and decide whether or not to make changes as a result. But I think it is a very brief window and often we let the chance for change go by. I wanted to find a character who would really wrestle with the reasons this specific event has happened and try to prevent it from happening again.
She is part of a family who don’t talk, who don’t communicate. She wants to challenge this, and has to face the possibility that she may be part of the problem as well. That was something that interested me. Being British, a story about a family who can’t communicate or talk about their emotions was one which felt immediate and recognisable.
SWH!: The background of the floods makes a big impact on the film. Why did you choose this as a setting?
HDL: When I was developing the family story the flood story was happening. I went to meet some of the farmers who had been affected and saw how their lives had been turned upside down by the floods, something which could have been prevented. It felt like the perfect setting – an appropriate context for the family story because there is a similar scenario being played out, but on a bigger scale. It was also a story which needed attention. Both sides of the story would serve each other well.
I had seen the photos of Matilda Temperley which focused on the Somerset floods. I got in touch with her and she introduced me to some of the people who had been flooded. As I looked into it I realised that this was something that had come about because of a lack of understanding and communication between the people making the decisions and the people working on the land. It felt like an apt metaphor for the family story. I think that is very cinematic – finding a context that fits with the drama in a way that makes the smaller story relatable on a wider level.
SWH!: The film is beautifully shot, and really engages with the landscape and nature. How did you approach the style of the film and how you wanted it to look?
HDL: Because the setting is such a big part of the story I wanted to give it character. So, the cinematographer, the location manager and I scouted a lot of places to really tell the story of not only a broken family but also a broken community and even a broken landscape, but one which was coming together and going through a process of rebirth. It was about finding the right locations – those farms which were at a certain point in their lives. They looked as if they were falling apart but there was hope for their future, that they would come alive again. That was really important.
We also looked at a lot of Belgian cinema, such as the Dardenne brothers, and the French cinema which deals with rural life and does so in a straightforward manner. These aren’t stories we see in British cinema that often. But we were very much led by the real world. Authenticity is so important to me. To make the film emotionally authentic I knew we had to get the true story around what farming life is like, and what that part of the world is like, absolutely right. We had to look at the way people lived, but also the colours and character of the landscape and have those feeding into the story we were trying to tell.
There’s a hare in the film which appears as a motif and that came about from a story a farmer told me about evacuating his farm at two in the morning, in the pitch black, when he had to get his 400 cattle to safety. He saw a hare in the water and wanted to save it but he knew he couldn’t, and that was such a striking image to me. It became a metaphor for the boy who died, what he was up against, how he was fighting to stay alive and keep his farm afloat. It was about trying to embrace the poetic as well as nail the authenticity.
SWH!: You said the film is partly about telling stories rarely told, and when we see broken communities on film in this country it’s often in urban settings, so to have a rural setting is unusual, and I’m sure there are many stories like this which just haven’t been told.
HDL: Absolutely. I think rural stories in British cinema are often told in a bucolic “Nanny McPhee” kind of way, which are lovely, but lots of people live in the country and if we don’t start listening to one another and understand each other’s lives this is what happens. Bad decisions get made, and I think that is something which is increasingly applicable to food production. Most of us take for granted where our food comes from. But there are the farmers and this is their livelihood, and understanding what they are up against might make us feel OK about paying a little bit more for a pint of milk. That’s the sort of thing which might make a difference with regard to sustaining these farms.
SWH!: Are you looking forward to the Glasgow Film Festival?
HDL: I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Mark Cousins’ film Stockholm, My Love, but it’s going to be great just to be back in Glasgow because that’s where I wrote the film, in the An Clachan Cafe in Kelvingrove Park every day, so for me it feel like the film is coming home.
Here’s the trailer:
You can read our interview with End Of The Game director David Scott Graham here.
The SWH! Preview of the Glasgow Film Festival has some suggestions as to what to see.