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April 27, 2015
In 2011, Dreams Of A Life, an interesting semi-documentary that shed light on the chilling true story of a woman discovered in her London flat after being dead for three years, put Carol Morley on my radar. Four years later, the British documentary filmmaker has fully transitioned into the world of narrative fiction and once again, she couldn’t have chosen a more bizarre subject for her debut, confirming her unique voice which deserves attention, especially in such a chauvinistic industry where female talent struggles to emerge.
It must be immediately noted how The Falling is uncompromisingly stylish and cryptic yet incredibly alluring despite being often baffling and frustratingly so. Yet a film that provokes such reactions is inevitably aware of what it’s doing to its audience and I’d rather watch something that ignites thought rather than numbing my mind. With that said, The Falling’s strengths are also what, pardon the pun, may cause its fall with a wider audience given its constantly dream-like atmosphere, its slow pace and the lack of a momentum-forwarding narrative.
The scene is an all girls’ school in an undefined British town. The year is 1969, which immediately paints the picture of what it might be like to attend one of those strict schools in that era. The story follows teenager Lydia (Game Of Thrones’ Maisie Williams) and her friendship with BFF Abbie (Florence Pugh) as they navigate the typical coming of age phase of teenage rebellion and sexual awakening, especially in such a conservative environment. As it usually occurs in this kind of stories, we have the on-the-nose gorgeous and troubled girl who’s already got her cherry popped (Abbie) and her pretty friend who’s charismatic but of course a virgin (Lydia).
When you add to the picture how Lydia is entranced by her experienced friend to the point of clearly longing for her and she’s torturously teased by Abbie’s often ambiguous body language, yet she has to painfully witness her brother Kenneth (Joe Cole) and Abbie fooling around, you get a sense of how tormented she is. What on paper may sound like a traditional teenage story actually takes on a completely unusual shape when Abbie suddenly begins to suffer from fainting episodes and although the first thoughts go to an accidental pregnancy, which is not excluded, something else seems to be at play here.
When tragedy strikes the school and Lydia is affected by the repeated fainting as well, soon enough many other girls are, hinting at what seems to be the peculiar phenomenon of mass psychogenic illness aka mass hysteria. Several of these girls follow Lydia into some sort of “witch clique” that recites chants under a supposedly mystical tree and where Lydia and Abbie have carved their initials together. But where are the adults in the midst of all this chaos?
As it often happens in these stories, they are an absentee presence in these kids’ lives and surely have played a huge part in messing them up. The psychogenic illness is a clear symbol of teenage rebellion with inevitable sexual connotations and it affects both parents and teachers. Maxine Peake is quite good at portraying Lydia and Kenneth’s agoraphobic mother who hasn’t left the house in years. And so are Greta Scacchi playing the strict and repressed Deputy Headmistress and Monica Dolan playing Miss Alvaro, who seems to be just constantly floating in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
The greatest achievement of writer-director Carol Morley is most definitely the stylistic side of things. She has claimed to be wanting her film to look like a Renaissance painting and she most definitely succeeds at that, thanks to the period-accurate production and costume design and most importantly with the help of Agnés Godard’s luscious cinematography which under Morley’s instructions aimed to make the film look not like “they’ve made it” but as if “they found it in some dusty cupboard somewhere”. There’s no denying all of these qualities make the film a cinematic work of art yet detractors will probably label the film with the simplistic expression “artsy-fartsy” which I personally loathe.
The overall feeling I was left with after my screening at BFI Flare was of a film that could’ve done with a tighter script and less vagueness, yet this coming from someone who doesn’t enjoy the average Hollywood spoon-feeding. I’m all for ambiguity and mystery but The Falling seems to loose itself in the middle when the whole fainting business becomes rather repetitive and monotonously so. The cast however must be lauded for keeping things going despite the muddy sections. Maisie Williams in particular proves she’s a force of nature and it’s not by chance that she’s one of the best performers in the overcrowded Game Of Thrones‘ cast.
Although The Falling takes a while before getting interesting again, it does so with its climax which sheds light on some important character elements despite not providing a bow-tied resolution to the mass hysteria. That however is not an issue and I couldn’t agree more with Morley who said how she prefers to let the audience make their assumptions. In any case what truly matters is that even with its flaws, The Falling makes for a stimulating viewing experience and makes me eager to see what’s next for this talented British filmmaker.
The Falling is available on DVD in the UK from August 24th
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor