Cast: Maisie Williams, Florence Pugh, Maxine Peake, Greta Scacchi, Monica Dolan, Joe Cole
Director: Carol Morley
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Coming-of-age story, sexual awakening melodrama, psychological teen horror film--where exactly writer-director Carol Morley's The Falling fits into the genre spectrum is debatable, but what's most interesting is the way Morley (formerly a documentarian) attempts to get at something universal through suggestion and atmosphere rather than standard plotting. There's a kind of deranged, hermetically sealed environment at the center of the story taking place at an all-girls school circa 1969, which hints at more insidious (possibly supernatural) undertones. Using discordant editing, atmospheric transitions, and a folksy score by Everything But The Girl's Tracey Thorn, The Falling curbs liberally from Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock and Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, both superior representations of similar themes, but nonetheless remains a darkly comic and unnerving experience before falling apart in its final reel. It's a film which posits intriguing notions about the wonder and confusion regarding encroaching adulthood and shared psychic trauma, only to cop out in an unconvincing stab at explaining everything. It's almost as if the picture's third act was modulated to please test audiences allergic to ambiguity.
The film centers on the friendship between 16-year-old Lydia (Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones) and Abbie (Florence Pugh in a striking debut), two young girls whose rejection of the repressive English school norms formulates both their developing worldview as well as their burgeoning sexuality. Abbie has recently lost her virginity, which creates something of a barrier between her and the other girls at the school, and beyond the mandated long skirts and rules against smoking, Abbie's transition creates a confusing dichotomy for Lydia, especially considering her brother (Joe Cole) is also smitten with the fetching blonde beauty. There's also familial strife in the form of Lydia's catatonic mother (Maxine Peake, looking like she wandered in from a David Lynch film) and the usual stiff-lipped conservative matriarchs of the school (including Greta Scacchi as a stern teacher). When tragedy strikes, Lydia's world goes into a tailspin, triggering bizarre fainting spells amongst the young girls throughout the school. The sight of near-orgasmic collapsing bodies is deemed "hysterical contagion" by doctors, promoting suspicion that there's some kind of mass suggestion going on, similar to what a skilled stage hypnotist can conjure. But what's really going on here? The strength of Morley's direction, accentuated by Williams' impressively twitchy performance and cinematographer Agnes Godard's painterly lensing, is that it's never exactly clear why these strange things are occurring and to what extent it may be something more otherworldly.
Of course, after multiple scenes of mass swooning while horrified teachers look on, it becomes clear that Morley has very little actual narrative to wade through. Lyrical atmosphere over predictable story structure can be a good thing, and there's something refreshing about Morley's refusal, at least for the first two acts, to spoonfeed the audience, but the stylistic noodling begins to wear out its novelty after a while. Meanwhile, Tracey Thorn's score--lush, folksy, and unbearably twee, feels jarringly out of place within the context of a story that calls for a more rumbling, mood-based sonic assault. The idea of pervading female sexuality creeping into the prim and proper confines of late 60s English countryside is interesting, and Williams really nails Lydia's conflicting emotions--from confusion, awe, anger, to undeveloped sexuality. However, whatever erie spell the film may have cast for it's first two thirds completely deflates once Lydia's torrid backstory is unearthed, culminating in a final scene between mother and daughter that feels wholly tacked on. In a way, The Falling conjures a kind of weirdly comical evocation of adolescent angst mixed in with the British horror tradition (there are nods to the films of Ken Russell and The Wicker Man), but never quite reaches the transcendent heights to which it aspires.