In Carol Morley’s ’60s-set The Falling, Maisie Williams plays Lydia, a girl whose moderately unhappy home life, compromised by an ineffectual, agoraphobic mother (Maxine Peake), is mitigated by her close friendship with Abbie (Florence Pugh), a fellow student at the oppressive and hidebound school that they attend. The girls’ relationship is undergoing some renegotiation as they enter adolescence, however, with the more circumspect Lydia finding herself to be both impressed and threatened by Abbie’s insolence and overt expressions of sexuality.
When the girls’ friendship is suddenly, painfully and irrevocably severed, Lydia’s reaction proves unpredictable. She begins experiencing fainting spells which gradually start to affect the other girls in the school, much to the consternation of the headmistress (Monica Dolan) and the girls’ teacher Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi).
With its terrific cast, its intellectual allusiveness (Wordsworth poetry and Jungian theory are evoked) and its attention to ambience (including a bespoke score by Tracey Thorn), all the elements would seem to be in place for The Falling to be a success. The film suggests another entry into the very welcome resurgence of the British art film, best encapsulated by Peter Strickland’s superb The Duke of Burgundy (2014). Alas, Morley’s movie is ludicrous: an uninsightful and often unintentionally comic effort that fails to do justice to its intriguing, potent themes.
Inspired initially by accounts of “mass hysteria” (now referred to as “mass psychogenic illness”) that have occurred in schools and other institutions, the film develops ideas explored in Morley’s 2006 short The Madness of the Dance, attempting to broaden these concerns into a wider exploration of women’s lives in a transitional period. The film’s most obvious intertext is Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), while its focus on the complexities of teenage female friendship within a ’60s context marks it out as a companion piece to Sally Potter’s underrated Ginger & Rosa (2012).
Unfortunately, though, The Falling fails to match the assurance of either movie, handicapped as it is by a poor, undeveloped script that often spells out the themes too explicitly while remaining, at the last, frustratingly opaque. Throughout, the dialogue has an air of arch unreality, meaning that many key interactions feel false. “I resent the idea that we’re just emotional… That specialist will just put it down to hormones”, Lydia notes, clunkily summing up what the film has already shown us. Earlier, the character responds to news of Abbie’s pregnancy by stating: “Millions of women have babies, Abbie. It’s life. And life only.” That final “And life only” — artificial, literary, and bogus — encapsulates much of what’s wrong with the writing of the movie.
Formally, The Falling has elements of interest that reflect Morley’s art school background. (The cinematography is by the excellent Agnes Godard.) However, the recourse to Nicolas Roeg-esque elliptical editing, nature shots and montage sequences never produces a sustained, confident rhythm; rather, these flourishes feel like mere affectations that aren’t expressive in terms of character or themes. The scenes seldom develop satisfyingly: too obviously straining for hypnotic ambience, the film doesn’t so much create an atmosphere as announce one. (The “falling” scenes themselves, which look like something choreographed by Pina Bausch on a very bad day, are disastrous.)
Morley seems to have little clue as to how to get the best out of her actors, either. The older cast members fare particularly poorly, unable to draw on the talents they’ve clearly demonstrated elsewhere. Greta Scacchi and Monica Dolan incarnate the repressiveness of the school in the campest mode imaginable, and it’s hard to say which of the two gives the worst performance. A perpetually stricken-looking Scacchi, with downturned mouth and bitter enunciation, is entirely unconvincing, and Dolan, stalking the school’s halls in a cloak and with cigarette constantly in hand, is painfully mannered, too.
Despite an erratic accent, Maxine Peake, as Lydia’s mother Eileen, comes through with a stronger performance. But the character still remains remote and unsympathetic, and suffers from Morley’s decision to load the final stretch of the film with tacky confrontations and revelations that problematically “explain” Eileen’s stasis and swerve the film into mediocre soap operatics.
Williams has some strong moments, putting her perverse, devil-doll demeanour to effective use as Lydia becomes increasingly unruly. But the movie is too overt in setting the character up as a beacon of rebelliousness in a repressive environment: her challenges to an insidious medic (Simon Paisley Day) are overdone, as is her exhortation to her teachers and fellow students: “Kill the system. It’s killing you!” There’s a genuinely provocative, disturbing film trying to get out of The Falling, but Morley’s movie sadly ends up a frustrating mixture of the obvious and the evasive.
The transfer to DVD is crisp and clear. No extras available on the review copy.