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School daze? The Falling review

Writer/director Carol Morley’s film The Falling was one of my favourites from last year’s London Film Festival. Newly released on DVD/Blu Ray, it’s time to fall for one of the year’s most beguiling movie treasures.

Set largely in an English girls’ school in the late sixties, The Falling is a dark and ambitious mystery with shades of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Lindsey Anderson’s…if and the science fiction of John Wyndham (especially his novel The Midwich Cuckoos). In an atmosphere charged with teenage hormones and emerging sexuality a strange viral outbreak of fainting and fits spreads through the female pupils.

The epicentre of the drama is schoolgirl Lydia (Masie Williams). Lydia’s home-life is unusual, she lives with her single mother, who suffers from a peculiar form of agoraphobia, and her occult obsessed elder brother Kenneth (Joe Cole). Her best friend is Abby (Florence Pugh) a more ‘mature’ girl who is beginning to become sexually active, something that confuses and upsets tomboy Lydia. The two girls promise to meet every year on the same day under an ancient tree. As shot by Claire Denis’ regular collaborator Agnès Godard this sun dappled spot with its dark pond and twisted oak takes on an almost magical significance (or as Lydia’s brother would have it ‘magickal’).

The first of the fainting fits in the school is suffered by Abby, but then inexplicably spreads to Lydia and other girls in their circle of friends. Initially this is ignored by their teachers who view it as a contrived annoyance, but when a mass attack occurs in a classroom (an extraordinary scene that evokes Ken Russell’s The Devils, albeit far less explicitly) the school is shut down and the girls taken for tests.

Carol Morley’s film is destined to be extremely divisive, its themes of generational conflict, female sexuality and particularly adolescent female sexuality, will be uncomfortable for some. In many ways as beguiling a portrayal of femininity as Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, The Falling is a good deal less playful. It should be made clear that while the atmosphere is extremely ripe and tangy, the film is careful not to objectify and present the schoolgirls as objects of desire.

The casting is excellent, Williams brings many of the qualities that have made her performance as Aria Stark in television’s Game of Thrones so compelling. Lydia has the same steely determination as Aria Stark, and the same fiery punk disdain for authority. Morley favours big close ups of the actress that take on an almost hypnotic quality. The exaggerated physical acting of the teenage cast (clearly a conscious artistic decision) will alienate some, but it adds to the overall strangeness on display. The adult cast also make their mark, and the film is as much about the contrast of youth with mothers and teachers and the generational disconnect in their reactions to the outbreak. Greta Scacchi and Monica Dolan are particularly good as the school’s stern senior teachers, there is a lovely moment when they ruminate on the natural tendency of teenage girls to feel misunderstood “if they want to feel misunderstood, they should try being a middle-age woman”.

Further adding to the overall discomfort of The Falling as a work of art is that root causes of the outbreak of psychogenic illness remains frustratingly ambiguous, while physiological and psychological causes are discussed the solution is constantly elusive. Whenever it appears that we have reached a point of revelation, it dances away, keeping just a fingertip’s length distant. As science fails to find a cause, the possibility of an occult explanation is also open.

It wouldn’t take a major script rewrite to repurpose The Falling as a horror or science fiction film, it shares themes with classic paranoid science fiction like the 1960 film adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoo’s, Village of the Damned, but really is closer in tone to Les Revenants, the 2004 french film that inspired the TV series The Returned. This is a metaphorical tale, the school setting and period make clear that social change is a theme and a key driver in the social change of the nineteen sixties was the liberation of women from biology offered by the pill. Equally the rise of the teenager as a marketing demographic had become a new social force which was leading to teenagers across the west testing the limits of adult authority. Despite this the root subtext remains mysterious. Just when you think you have the key to the mystery, in a flash of gunpowder and smoke it vanishes.

Like any good magic act, Morely’s film requires a willing suspension of rationality from the audience. It will be too much for some, but fall under the spell and you will be haunted for days.

Review originally for the dearly departed Verite blog, you can also find my interview with Morley online in the April/June 15 issue of the late film mag.

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