Reviews

Both Obvious and Evasive, Carol Morley’s 'The Falling' Fails to Do Justice to Intriguing Theme

There’s a genuinely provocative, disturbing film trying to get out of The Falling.


The Falling

Director: Carol Morley
Cast: Maisie Williams, Florence Pugh, Greta Scacchi, Monica Dolan, Maxine Peake
Distributor: Metrodome
Rated: 15
UK DVD release date: 2015-08-24

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.

4

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image