Carol Morley's The Falling is beguiling and disturbing, a beautifully made and very subtle affair that combines melodrama, rites of passage and supernatural elements in an utterly intriguing way.
The setting is an English girls' school in 1969. Right at the start of the film, we are treated to beautiful imagery of the autumnal countryside, in particular the ancient oak trees into which the girls carve their initials, as well as fetishistic close-ups of the girls' hair. There is also a bizarre, speeded-up montage sequence, which could have come out of one of Donald Cammell's psychedelic films in which we are plunged forward in time.
Abbie (newcomer Florence Pugh) is a beautiful and rebellious 16-year-old. Her best friend, Lydia (Maisie Williams), is less worldly wise ("As you know, I'm a virgin") but equally defiant. They're very close – they even share each others' chewing gum – and Lydia seems to hero-worship Abbie.
One of the strengths of the film is its accurate and barbed portrayal of changing British social attitudes. On the one hand, this is the "swinging" Sixties, as evidenced by the short skirts, especially those worn by Abbie. There is a new permissiveness in the air. "He had a car. What can I say?," is how Abbie blithely explains a sexual encounter that turns out to have repercussions for her and the school. The girls talk about orgasm with mock sophistication as "little death," even as it becomes apparent that most have them have no experience of "doing it", as they describe sex.
On the other hand, the teachers and parents still seem stuck in a pinched, conservative Britain that makes no allowances to changing times. The mums wear aprons, have their hair in beehives and watch Robin Day on news programmes on their little black-and-white TV. This is still a world in which women try to deal with unwanted pregnancies with "gin and knitting needles" and in which the teachers send for the psychiatrist at the first signs that their pupils are behaving in an unconventional fashion.
Morley deliberately holds back information. We are never quite sure where the school is located. The film doesn't look like a typical Sixties-set British movie, either. The French cinematographer Agnès Godard, who is celebrated for her work with Claire Denis and Agnès Varda, films typical British locations in an offbeat fashion.
The schoolgirls, whose hormones are raging, hold the older generation in very low esteem. They can't even begin to suspect that these adults have sexual lives or desires of their own. To them, teachers such as the grey-faced deputy head Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi) and the chain-smoking headmistress Miss Alvaro (Monica Dolan), or Lydia's long-suffering hairdresser mum Eileen (Maxine Peake), are dried-up old creatures.
The soft-focus imagery of the girls roaming round the woods rekindles memories of Picnic at Hanging Rock or of voyeuristic, David Hamilton-style 1970s photography. At the same time, the school is very British. It has just a hint of the sixth form at St Trinian's about it.
Morley is touching on some very dark topics here – abortion, death, illness, mass hysteria and family feuding – but she continually uses humour to keep pretentiousness and bombast at bay. In one funny scene, for example, we see a cyclist calling the girls "witches". The moment he does so, as if a curse has been placed on him, he crashes into a ditch. A girl with morning sickness is shown throwing up in class just as the teacher tries to upbraid her. The music, by Everything but the Girl's Tracey Thorn, is eerie but playful.
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As the girls – and even some of the teachers – begin to have fainting fits, there are moments in which the film seems like a Sixties schoolgirls' version of Ken Russell's The Devils – but if this is a story of demonic possession, it comes laced throughout with a British kind of irony.
As Lydia, Maisie Williams has the same mix of defiance, precociousness and vulnerability that she brings to her most famous role thus far, as Arya Stark in HBO's Game of Thrones. The film portrays Lydia in a deliberately ambiguous fashion. She is both ringleader and victim. Even her facial expressions are hard to read. She seems to be winking at her friends when the fainting fits begin, but it is equally plausible that her nervous tics are symptoms of a real illness. At first, it is far from clear that her mother and teachers are hiding anything from her but the more extreme her behaviour becomes, the more she reveals about their repressed desires and secrets.
In her 2011 documentary Dreams of a Life, Morley painstakingly pieced together the story of a 38-year-old woman who died alone in a north London flat and whose body lay undiscovered for three years. In doing so, she gave her subject a dignity in death and paid tribute to a life that would otherwise have been forgotten.
She attempts something similar in The Falling. Rather than simply caricaturing the teachers Miss Mantel and Miss Alvaro, Morley provides them with a backstory. She goes even further with Lydia's mum, Eileen (Maxine Peake), someone who initially seems to be utterly defeated by her circumstances, and who is treated with disdain by her daughter. It's this attention to character that gives The Falling such resonance and stops it from ever seeming like simply a girlish and far-fetched teen fantasy.
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