Death By Suicide: The Beginning After the End

The Levelling, directed by Hope Dickson Leach

On general release in UK cinemas now

Review by Professor Robert Abrams, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York

Even before you view The Levelling, a film written and directed by Hope Dickson Leach, its title gives off a disquieting aura; you feel you are about to enter the maelstrom of a fearsomely destructive force. And so you are. The word “levelling” itself connotes complete destruction or possibly rageful retribution. One can only hope that there might also be a corresponding coda of reconstruction and healing.  The viewer of this film is ultimately witness to both: a saga of suffering known to clinicians as complicated grief, and its protracted resolution, of which some of the details will be outlined here.  But the viewer’s worst fears are realized at the beginning, in the primal mayhem of a drunken party that plays along with the opening credits.

In the next scene a young woman, Clover Catto (Ellie Kendrick), is returning home to the family dairy farm from University for the funeral of Harry (Joe Blakemore), her younger brother. Harry shot himself to death, even though their father Aubrey (David Troughton) insists it was an accident after a night of drinking. Aubrey is indeed a difficult man, described with considerable understatement as “not an easy father.” He is neglectful of animals and indifferent to people, especially it seems, to his daughter. Whenever confrontation with emotion becomes unavoidable, he recoils: “You have to get up, get out of bed, and milk the bloody cows.”

Determined to understand what happened, Clover surveys the flood-ruined wreck of a farmhouse in search of memories. She blames her ostrich-like father for her brother’s unexplained changes of personality, but Aubrey is inured to any suggestion of feeling or loss.

At least in one way her father had got it right. Clover is not a good fit for farm life. She cannot abide the killing of animals or cruelty; she cannot eat them, either; a commercial cattle farm is no place for a person with these sensibilities, even for one training to be a veterinarian. No respect for any form of life and no emotional attachments, whether human or bovine, are allowed in Aubrey’s world.

Father and daughter have been divided, one might say imprisoned, by a mutual feeling of abandonment and injustice. But Aubrey is still the most important man in Clover’s life, hate becoming psychologically equivalent to love once the algebraic negatives are removed. In the Catto family’s no-communication bubble, Clover had hoped for nothing as keenly as to be loved by her father; her father had privately yearned for her to be the one to initiate a rapprochement, had wanted Clover to want to return home, to support her troubled, probably mentally ill brother, and to shore up Aubrey himself as well.

What is the relevance of this film for readers of Medical Humanities? The Levelling deals with a conundrum seen often enough in clinical practice—and also in life: the consequences of suicidal death for the living. Death by suicide entails a double death, exactly as described by the clergywoman-therapist in the film, encompassing both the death of the person and the death of the “person you thought you knew.”  Healing is necessarily intricate, and it is accurately and sensitively presented in this otherwise disturbing film.  The Levelling can be summed up as a chilling depiction of what psychiatrists now consider to be “complicated grief.”  Complicated grief is a syndrome of greater severity, complexity and persistence than ordinary grief.  It is a condition in which the circumstances of the death interfere drastically with mourning.  Thus the survivors must deal first, before anything else, with the traumatic aspects of loss, with shock, anger, and their own sense of injury; this principle applies to the aftermath of a suicide or to any premature or unnatural death. Acknowledging the traumatic aspects of the event itself and then the personal meaning of the death is a foundational precondition for any meaningful process of bereavement.  For now, the clergywoman-therapist tells Clover, “This is about you.”

The melancholic beauty of the music in The Levelling and the camera’s focus on an untidy farm are fitting backdrops to a messy, circuitous and wrenching emotional path to healing from complicated grief. The brilliance of the film lies in its measured manner, the way we slowly become privy to the source of the characters’ anger and sorrow, their journey from death and destruction to a long-delayed but never-too-late recognition of their love for each other. “Levelling” in the end implies a new beginning on an even playing field.

Address for correspondence: rabrams1717@gmail.com