Writer-director Carol Morley’s justly acclaimed documentary Dreams of a Life tried to pierce a veil of mystery around one woman’s lonely death in North London. Her ambitious second feature film, The Falling, is no less ripe with pungent ideas. Probing another kind of psychological puzzle, one explored also in her short The Madness of the Dance, the film observes an outbreak of psychogenic illness (aka mass hysteria) at an all-girl’s school in 1969 where a circle of young women become prone to medically inexplicable fainting fits. There are so many acute insights, striking images and impressive performances in it, not least from lead Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones), it’s a tragic shame that elsewhere inexperience shows and the last 15 minutes devolve into a morass of melodramatic incident. Nevertheless, The Falling has garnered robust support from most local critics, backing that will help sustain it on the domestic specialist circuit.
Set largely in and around an imposing neo-Gothic school somewhere in England with high windows that practically invite defenestration, the movie starts with a tight focus on two young pupils and then ripples out to encompass the community at large. Sixteen-year-olds Lydia Lamont (Williams) and Abbie Mortimer (discovery Florence Pugh) are best friends in that intense, teenage-girl way, even though it’s easy to see that they and the rest of their gang are unlikely to still be friends in 10 or even five years’ time. Lydia is clever but filled with anger towards her agoraphobic hairdresser mother, Eileen (Maxine Peake); Abbie is the school beauty, bright too, but more rebellious and reckless than Lydia. She’s been having sex with Lydia’s older brother, Kenneth (Joe Cole), which has unbalanced her relationship with Lydia. When she discovers she’s pregnant, the fuse is lit on a fatal string of fate.
When tragedy strikes and a pupil dies under mysterious circumstances, the whole school goes into shock. No-nonsense headmistress Miss Alvara (Monica Dolan) and spinsterish deputy head Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi) try to keep calm and carry on as best they can, insisting on stoic discipline. But before long, first Lydia and then more and more girls start having odd fits, involving fainting spells, twitches and winks, symptoms much like those exhibited by the recently deceased girl before she died. Even the pretty young art teacher Miss Charron (Morfydd Clark) falls prey, and the chaos reaches a climax during a finely staged school assembly where a dozen women succumb to this weird swooning sickness.
Kenneth’s fascination with the occult — very 1969, although the film also intelligently emphasizes how very square life in the British provinces was at the time — holds out a supernatural explanation for the girls’ malaise. That’s bolstered further by the self-conscious allusions via scenes of lolling, languid girls enjoying nature to Peter Weir’s mystery-drenched classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), as well as Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s wonderfully creepy-sensual girls-school-set enigma Innocence (2004). But in the end Morley’s script makes it pretty clear that the girls are suffering from good old-fashioned hysteria, particularly the kind that spreads like wildfire through female communities, especially when you add peer pressure, homosocial desire and repressed anti-authoritarianism into the mix.
It’s a fascinating and timely subject, and feminists of every gender will be thrilled with the film’s mostly female cast, its emphasis on female agency and its nuanced exploration of intra-female dynamics. The fact that so many of the key above- and below-the-line creatives involved are women, even in such traditionally male jobs as cinematographer (Agnes Godard) and postproduction supervisor (Gisela Evert), is the estrogen-soaked cherry on the cake. Some may even argue that the unpredictable tonal shifts here and the rejection of a neat three-act is evidence of a feminine approach to storytelling.
Nonetheless, however much one wishes to applaud Morley and her collaborators’ audacity and innovation, the feeling persists, especially in the last half hour, that the bumpy bits are the result less of design than of accident, under-rehearsal and editorial triage. While Williams and Pugh are both excellent, and moreover impressively coordinated in skill given the disparity in their respective experiences as actors, some of the younger women offer much less persuasive turns. There’s a similar mismatch among the adults, too, and it pains one to report that the usually impeccable Peake is not on form here with her catatonic Eileen, a rather undercooked character anyway.
Elsewhere, for instance, in a bathroom scene between the core girl gang, the emphasis on close-ups looks less like an intentional strategy than compensation for a missing set of master shots. And the last 10 minutes are just a straight-up mess, piling shocking twists and lurid turns atop each other until they topple into a Jenga pile of silliness, almost enough to crush the movie itself. It’s such a pity because a more thoughtful, measured construction and some restraint could have built a really outstanding British film.
Production companies: A BBC Films, BFI presentation in association with Lipsync Productions, of a Cannon and Morley/Independent production in association with Boudica Red
Cast: Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake, Florence Pugh, Monica Dolan, Greta Scacchi, Matthew Baynton, Joe Cole, Morfydd Clark, Anna Burnett, Rose Caton, Evie Hooton, Katie Ann Knight, Lauren McCrostie
Director-screenwriter: Carol Morley
Producers: Cairo Cannon, Luc Roeg
Executive producers: Lizzie Francke, Christine Langan, Andrew Orr, Norman Merry, Peter Hampden, Rebecca Long, Ian Davies
Director of photography: Agnes Godard
Production designer: Jane Levick
Costume designer: Sian Jenkins
Editor: Chris Wyatt
Music: Tracey Thorn
Casting: Shaheen Baig
Sales: The Independent Film Company
No rating, 102 minutes