The Levelling [2016] – An Emotionally Authentic Grim Rural Drama




I am interested in watching films dealing with grief and families that have stopped or failed to communicate with each other. The emotional canvas of such films feels instantly recognizable. Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature The Levelling (2016) -- set on a dairy farm, west of England – explores the tragic existence of a young daughter and father after an insurmountable loss. Similar to many other quietly devastating family dramas, unfurling in small town or farm setting, The Levelling too suggests of secrets, hidden beneath the surface; some secrets literally buried under the muddy landscape, while others entombed inside one’s heart, festering agony and resentment. Despite the easily recognizable character sketches and narrative arc, what sets the film apart among the other grim family dramas is its powerful sense of place and its ability to contemplate the situation with emotional honesty (not through sentimentality).

The title refers to Somerset Levels – area constituting wetlands and coastal plains of Somerset. In 2014, heavy rains gave way to devastating floods in the area, causing a lot of property damages and forced evacuations. The insurance companies copped out, forcing the farmers to fend for themselves in the waterlogged farm. Diseases threatened to wipe out the cattle breeds. The country peoples’ lives were turned upside down and there’s literally no respite waiting for their financial grievances. Director Hope Dickson Leach found the grim reality to be a perfectly resonating set-up for the family story (a reality which she doesn’t exploit for cheap melodrama). She further states that the farmers’ plight is more haunting when reflecting on how Brexit is going to cause more troubles for them.


The Levelling was shot on a shoe-string budget, making most out of the limited location and cast. Leach’s wonderful formal sensibilities and nuanced writing is evident the film’s opening sequences. The prologue showcases a mad, drinking party. It cuts to the shot of a JCB standing guard atop the muddy, blighted landscape. A young woman sits inside a car and tries to control her tears. The old man sitting next tries to comfort her. She asks with quiet anger, ‘Can you make it my dad, instead of my brother?’ A very simple scene that efficiently conveys Clover Catto’s (Ellie Kendrick) frayed relationship with her father and informs about the tragedy which has made her return home. Clover is studying to be a veterinarian and withholds rage for her father Aubrey (David Troughton). She calls him Aubrey, not dad. Clover hopes to leave the farm soon after brother Harry’s funeral. When she asks Aubrey about the alleged suicide of Harry (blew his head-out in the toilet with a shotgun), he dismisses it as ‘a bloody stupid accident’.
 

The floods have caused the house nearly inhabitable as Aubrey is now dwelling inside a caravan. Clover learns that the farm business is also in despair and the father is in denial about it as much as he denies the suicide of Harry. Half of the cattle breed is about to be sold and Clover unearths executed badgers (which may cause problems with the law). The Badgers may have been killed to avoid bovine TB. Clover follows the routine of milking the cows and cleaning the farm, but doesn’t find the reason that provoked Harry to commit suicide. Farmhand and Harry’s best friend James (Jack Holden) stirs up Clover by providing few answers. The deceased Harry, who is mostly seen on photos, has a haunting presence over the failed family, un-earthing fresh anxieties and guilt.  

The Levelling has narrative structure and characters of a European mood piece than the regular genre piece. Dickson Leach parcels out information in small doses, which is not just to increase the dramatic quotient, but also to understand the characters little better.  Furthermore, the tactic to withhold information doesn’t mean it really possesses a bigger mystery (the mystery, if you think there is one, is predictable). It’s simply a means to gradually place us in the gloomy atmospherics and fully empathize with the father and daughter’s predicament. The script is free of unnecessary sub-plots. Within its limited time and scope, Dickson Leach profoundly explores the roots of familial dysfunction (still few notches below Debra Granik’s Winter Bone). The scenes written mostly as two person conversations could have felt boring, if not for the impactful film-form.

 Leach’s visual sensibilities (Nanu Seagal’s cinematography is simply astounding) remind us of the early works of fellow British film-makers Lynn Ramsay and Andrea Arnold (Leach have made award winning short films and was former assistant to director Todd Solondz). The relentless gloom she expresses or frames even turns the deceased Harry as well as the crumbling farm into dominant characters. Director Leach also makes use of interesting recurring visual motifs – for eg, the hare struggling in pool of water which becomes metaphor for Harry who had tried his best to keep himself and the farm alive.  Similar to Ramsay’s study of loss and yearning in Ratcatcher (1999), these poetic interludes tries to subtly indicate the struggles of the broken communities. The two central performances don’t falter for a moment. Ellie Kendrick – best known for playing Anne Frank in 2009 mini-series and for the role of Meera Reed in Game of Thrones – bestows one of the memorable screen-bearer of grief in recent times. Her awkward blurts, quiet smirks and suppressed feelings of guilt and anxiety are fascinating to witness. Veteran actor Troughton excels as the emotionally hardened father. We can’t stop empathizing with the old man when cracks appear in his stiff, repressed facade. The final scene involving Kendrick and Troughton is nothing less than brilliant (that painterly frame adds to the big emotional impact). 

Trailer

 

The Levelling (83 minutes) with its distinct mournful mood and splendid performances proves to be one of the best debut-features in recent times. It’s yet another moving portrait of grief and dysfunctional family .  

★★★½ 

 

Big Little Lies (2017) – A Compelling Domestic Drama Dressed Up as Murder/Mystery




HBO’s seven-episode mini-series Big Little Lies (2017) is set in the wealthy beachfront town of Monterey, California. The gorgeous natural atmosphere and the plush, huge homes overlooking the ocean seem to perfectly confirm to the na├»ve person’s idea of paradise. Similar to Mr. David Lynch’s camera that reveals swarm of insects underneath the neatly trimmed yard (in Blue Velvet), relentless abuse are lurking beneath the divine surface. Superbly written by Emmy-Award winning producer/writer David E Kelley, and deftly directed by Canadian-French film-maker Jean-Marc Vallee, Big Little Lies is an adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, which is set in an affluent Australian small town. A little glance at the story line would definitely make us think that it’s totally unrelatable or it’s just another tale of desperate, white, and obscenely wealthy housewives. And, yes the majority of central characters here lead extravagant lives who possess the usual obnoxiousness of the privileged white. But Mr. Kelley and Mr. Vallee succeeds with Big Little Lies by penetrating through those layers of extravagance and obnoxious behavior to intimately look at their immense emotional burden. They surely are f***ed-up people, taking one wrong decision after another, yet the sensitive writing makes us empathize for these women. 

Big Little Lies is dressed up as a murder mystery, but at its best this is an incisive exploration of the emotional and physical abuse wreaked on women and children in a status-obsessed societal set-up that’s powered by toxic masculinity. When one throws in words like ‘toxic masculinity’ naturally a doubt arises whether the series is a stridently feminist tale, showcasing every male as monster dressed-up in suits. While the novel and series has strict idealistic intention, it thankfully never reduces any male or female characters into caricature. Irrespective of gender, people here make mistakes and act as annoying haranguers. The little over-stuffed first episode begins with a female detective arriving at the crime scene of a gruesome murder. The setting is gala party where all the affluent couples of the small town have attended. In the interrogation room assortment of gossiping characters unveil their stories and theories on the motive for murder. 


In the first episode listening to Greek chorus characters, we aren’t just hooked up to know about murderer’s identity. We are also more interested in knowing who the victim is. The story unfurls in flashback which revolves around five women. Reese Witherspoon plays fire-cracker Madeline Martha, mom to aloof teenager, a super-smart little girl, and wife to work-at-home computer engineer Ed (Adam Scott). Madeline is like the older version of Tracy Flick – played by Reese Witherspoon in Alexander Payne’s Election (1999): cute-looking as well as detestable. But, as the character grows in further episode we witness a vulnerability to her which makes us empathize with her plight. Madeline wages two battles in this particular phase of her life: one with city of Monterey over a shelved play; and the other with ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper) who is now married to angelic and disillusioned woman Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz). Nicole Kidman plays Celeste, a successful lawyer who had sacrificed her career to take care of twins and handsome husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgaard). Their beautiful faces and gorgeous mansion could make up for picture-perfect portrait of happy family life; except for the fact that, everything is decayed beneath this attractive surface. 


Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) is the new girl on the block. She is much younger than the other moms dropping their children at the renowned local public school. Jane is a single mom who hopes to start fresh life with son Ziggy and bestow him the best education possible. She quickly forms friendship with Madeline and Celeste, although Jane evidently becomes uncomfortable when their conversation moves to Ziggy’s father. Renata Klein (Laura Dern) is the most privileged among the five women (in the tale) which also makes her the most disliked person in the town. She lives with a very understanding husband and a charming little daughter Annabella. Renata routinely struggles between finding time for her daughter and to wage corporate boardroom wars. The central conflict of the story commences on the school orientation day when first-grader Annabella points to newcomer Ziggy as the bully who choked her in the classroom. Ziggy rejects the accusation, Jane believes her son, and Renata chastises both of them. This entire drama unfolds in front of the parents of other first-graders. Madeline who already bears a grudge for Renata takes over the conflict. Supported by Celeste, she makes sure it’s now Team Madeline vs Renata Klein. The bullying of Annabella doesn’t stop and it makes the rift between the mothers run deeper. Ziggy keeps on saying he is innocent, but even Jane has a slight doubt, especially after considering the nature of Ziggy’s biological father. Meanwhile, the brutish behavior of Celeste’s husband Perry reaches threshold point and Madeline’s unchecked hate for ex-husband Nathan’s family unearths fresh conflicts. From the perspective of other voyeuristic town residents, these families (central to the tale) harbored varieties of ill-feelings so as to settle it in murder. However, as we journey with these characters and understand their emotional pains, we are much tensed over learning who the victim is?   


Writer David E Kelley turns what seems to be the superficial elements into something profound. With every little conversation taking place inside simple four-wall set-ups, different layers float to the surface, provoking us to re-think our simple judgment of characters. The most fascination aspect of writing lies in exploring the complexities of power within couple, particularly in the fights between Perry and Celeste. Director Vallee doesn’t film these sequences in one unbroken shot, but rather showcases the gruesome violence in little doses, suddenly cutting into atmosphere of silence and cutting away to the unconquered ocean. May be the ocean is representation of the woman who unrelentingly flows over despite facing death knell. However, Perry (Celeste's husband) isn’t portrayed as a one-dimensional monster. He is very well aware about his inner demons and apart from the time he fails to conquer those demons, he behaves like a good husband & father. Gradually, he becomes annoyed over the peaceful routine, engages in argument, initiates a slap, to which Celseste reacts (with slap or shove) and the whole distasteful action culminates in fierce sex. Then he apologies and promises to continue the therapy. The writing in therapy scenes are equivalent to walking on a tightrope. Celeste wants to confide enough to the therapist to seek help without revealing too much about Perry’s behavior. The terrifyingly toxic marriage between Celeste and Perry also keeps us on the edge, thanks to incredible performances from Skarsgarrd and Kidman. Kidman who is UN Women Goodwill Ambassador (helping out female victims of domestic violence) plays one of the hardest and best role in her career. She doesn’t play as the quivering wife of a classic abuser. On one level, Kidman’s Celeste likes the high sexual energy that follows her husband’s wrath. Kidman turns Celeste into a gray character and embodies the feelings of terror in a way not usually shown in films or TV series. 


While Vallee and Kelly builds up Woodley’s character Jane as the central piece of the jig-saw puzzle (using flashbacks and unnerving dreams), the second-best character in the series is Witherspoon’s Madeline. She starts off with her usual charm and unyielding energy. However, Witherspoon is at her best when she brings her character’s vulnerability and anxieties to the surface. She’s both hilarious as well as exasperating without exaggerating any emotions. Although Laura Dern’s Renata has limited scenes, she perfectly amalgamates the character’s arrogance and insecurities. Zoe Kravitz’s Bonnie is the most under-written character of the series. Yet, we are able to scrutinize her character in a different light after the tense finale. Director Jean Marc Vallee explores the themes of loneliness and domestic abuse by funneling it through sub-genres of social satire and murder mystery. He brings perfect control over the tone, although the jarring sound & visual effects becomes too repetitive at times. Vallee excels far better at using silence to create uncomfortable, brooding atmosphere. Big Little Lies may not be the starkly realistic look at the lives of middle-aged white women. It has melodrama and contrived mysterious elements at its center which runs toward a neatly-packaged resolution. Yet, its greatest quality lies in depicting the full range of emotions of the female characters. They are allowed to be fallible and detestable without provoking the viewers’ need to judge them. In this Big-entertainment medium, where women aren’t allowed to make mistakes and often get punished for harboring sexual desires, there’s a lot of genuineness to appreciate in Big Little Lies. 

 Trailer


                                                                ★★★★


Trapped (2015- ) – An Engrossing Moody Crime Series Set in a Small Icelandic Town




Nordic Noir has become synonymous with dark meticulously crafted story-lines, unforgettable three-dimensional characters, and spellbinding realization of natural atmosphere. For more than a decade, morally complex crime fictions hailing from Scandinavian nations are kindling our reading appetite more and more. Swedish writers Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck mystery series kicked off in 1965 and finished in 1975. The novels were adapted into multi-part TV series and numerous films. The authors take on social conflicts and characterization of detective protagonist later found its way into the Nordic Noir, where Swedish and Norwegian writers like Stieg Larsson (Millennium Trilogy), Henning Mankell (Wallender series), and Jo Nesbo (Harry Hole series) transcended premises of murder mystery into fascinating critique  on contemporary European society and western capitalism. The boundaries of Nordic Noir widened with the rise of mind-blowing TV series like The Bridge (Bron/Broen), Borgen, and The Killing (Forbrydelsen). Nordic Noir distinguishing trait is its ground-breaking characters (Katrine Fonsmark, Saga Noren, and Sarah Lund are memorable female characters in TV series ever), starkly realistic and precise setting, stripped off all the crowd-pleasing sub-plots often found in American or other crime fictions. While critics feel that end is in sight for Nordic Noir wave, the Scandinavian writers keep on surprising us every year.

Iceland was a bit left out from the international success enjoyed by TV series’ from other Nordic countries. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (101 Reykjavik, Contraband, Everest) extinguished that feeling with his 10-part murder mystery series Trapped (2015- ). The series debuted in Europe last year (first Icelandic series to be released by BBC) and went on to become international hit (with at least one million Brits and 5 million French watching its 10 episodes). The huge success led to its renewal for 2nd season, set to be screened in 2018. Trapped perfectly confirms to the basic elements of Nordic Noir, attracting existing fans, and moreover Baltasar Kormakur and his team of talented writers bring their own unique sensibilities to keep things fresh.


Trapped has two central characters: one is burly, poker-faced police chief Andri Olafsson (Olafur Darri Olafsson) with small icicles clinging to his unkempt beard; and the other is bad weather assaulting the poetic landscape. The very first difference we notice between other small-town based TV series and Trapped is its punishing weather. The huge mounds of snow all around the town perfectly sets up the trap for its characters – physically and psychologically. Furthermore, watching it in this hot weather I even felt a little chill, while consuming the images of beautiful yet brutal landscape. The story is set in Siglufjordur, a breathtakingly scenic little fishing town, north of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik. The people of the town have to wear heavy layers of outfit before driving or walking through the blizzard to their offices, schools or boat yards. All is definitely not well for protagonist Andri when the 1st episode begins. He is chief of police in a town, where everyone knows each other, and possibly the day-to-day duty might involve writing some parking tickets. They can cozily sit in the station with their flasks and play a game of chess. But, Andri’s marriage life is in shambles.


Andri’s house is being renovated and he is staying at his in-law’s house with two children (Perla and Thorhildur). However, Andri’s wife Agnes has requested for divorce and on that particular day she is arriving from Reykjavik with her boyfriend Sigvaldi. For the man who is still hopefully wearing his wedding ring this is very disappointing news. But Andri doesn’t show much on his face. He boards up (or traps up) all the emotional pains inside his giant physical stature. Agnes’ family home has few remainders of her dead younger sister Dagny. The episode opens with Dagny and her boyfriend Hjortur riding to an old factory for an intense session of sex. Later, Dagny is killed in a fire, whose source remains mysterious, and Hjortur survives with few burns. Meanwhile, a ferry from Denmark is arriving over the fjord. At the same time, a mangled human torso is caught in a fisherman’s nest. Andri inspects the torso in a perfect, clinical manner as if he has done it many times. Indeed, he has worked in Reykjavik and transferred to the town for reasons unknown (transferred here after the death of Dagny). Andri may have even felt a little relief for having a murder case to solve; a weird distraction from the burgeoning existential crisis.

As the Danish ferry reaches its destination the weather turns for the worst. Soon, everyone from the town’ Mayor to school children hears about the mutilated corpse. Since the corpse looks fresh and pulled from the water, the suspicion naturally falls on the members of ferry. Andri and his two subordinates (Asgeir and Hinrika) begin their investigation on the ferry. Moreover, the roads are slowly closing down due to the impending snow storm. The forensic team and higher police officials from Reykjavik couldn’t fly in. So, the townsfolk and people in the boat are trapped (including the murderer). It’s pretty much like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians situation, set in a bit wider societal canvas. We are then introduced to the town’s different colorful characters, who either inhabit the powerful or oppressed status. It now falls on Andri and his two less-experienced police officers to solve the murder case, whose list of suspects even include the Eastern European human-trafficking mafia. Before long, bodies start to pile up as the three-member police team try to get a hold over the twists and turns.


There are some unique Icelandic elements in Trapped that sets it apart from the other crime series from Norway, Sweden or Denmark. One is the formidable presence of nature, which literally dictates the narrative course. The other is found in its constant reference to 2008 Icelandic financial crisis. Although Iceland’s recovery from the economic collapse is portrayed as one of the modern miraculous story (something to learn for other countries hit by financial crisis), Trapped looks at the grass-root level impact of the crisis; on how it provoked people to use unlawful means to rejuvenate the town’s economy. The Mayor Hrafn and Reykjavik politician strives hard to coerce the locals for signing the deal with China in order to turn their sleepy town into a major port city. As we often saw in monochromatic film noir from old Hollywood, there will be crime when wealthy men with big ambitions try to realize their plan through whatever means. The frigid social and natural atmosphere in the small town perfectly elevates the noir elements and allows room for organic twists.

There are definitely some hiccups and repetitions in the narrative. The whole episode involving the Danish captain looks contrived and melodramatic. Some characters work as mere narrative device (may be there will fully evolve in the next season). The mystery looks a bit thin which could have been fully realized within eight episodes. Nevertheless, I didn’t mind watching 10 episodes (and wouldn’t have if it’s extended for another episode) especially for the atmosphere which may be exasperating to live in reality, but provides a very immersive visual experience. Olafsson's majestic presence is yet another reason to overlook the minor, understandable flaws.  I also particularly liked the elegant unraveling of the murderer identity. While usually we feel relief when the killer’s identity is unmasked, we only feel a little sad here. Like the gruesome murders, the actions that led the person to commit murder remain sorrowful. Finally, staying true to Nordic crime fictions, Trapped doesn’t give up its bleakness or ineradicable emotional wounds for an impossible happy ending. Andri’s plight kind of makes you to chastise the person who first said, ‘truth sets you free’. The release of truth here only deepens the void. As Andri walks away emotionless in the last frame of the last episode there isn’t much hope. Nevertheless, this dark Icelandic tale bestows fine comfort to briefly overlook our own existential quandaries. 

Trailer


Trapped (2015- ) is blessed with a fabulous natural environment, richly detailed characters, and an absorbing mystery at its center. It’s a must watch for the fans of Nordic crime tales.