Review: The Falling

   The Falling, Dir. Carol Morley 

There always was that one girl at school. The one who seemed preternaturally worldly, wearing expensive perfume or just that slightest bit more self-assured than the rest. Maybe she had an older boyfriend; maybe she was the first in her group of friends to smoke cigarettes or lose her virginity.  It would gain her admiration and resentment in equal measure.

In Carol Morley's new film The Falling, that girl is called Abbie (Florence Pugh). A pert-nosed, blonde haired beauty, Abbie and her closest friend Lydia (Maisie Williams) mark themselves as leaders of the pack in their cloistered girls school. It's England circa 1969, but this is a world far removed from swinging London and its environs. The girls’ strictly regimented existence could just as well belong to a century before; skirt lengths are measured and craggy schoolmarms watch over them with a stern eye. Nonetheless, Abbie manages to lose her virginity - much to Lydia's chagrin. 

The nature of Abbie's influence on the other girls -- and by extension, Lydia's -- is at the crux of the mystery central to The Falling. When a series of fainting spells blooms into a full-scale epidemic - seemingly at Lydia’s behest - the mostly female staff is alarmed and nonplussed. The en masse illness appears to be psychosomatic - in Lydia’s case exacerbated by a hyper-sexual older brother, an emotionally distant mother, and most of all her intense and physically close relationship to her best friend. 

Lensed by Agnes Godard, the film has a preoccupation with elements of virginal girlhood - long hair, knee-high socks - and the lush green verdancy of the surrounding countryside. There’s a certain hallucinatory lyricism here; a foreboding if clunky link made between sex and nature. In parts, an obvious debt is owed to Peter Weir’s classic of female hysteria, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Moments that imply Lydia has a supernatural power - as when a boy taunts her and subsequently falls off his bike  - even offer up a pallid suggestion of Sissy Spacek’s own tormented schoolgirl, Carrie.

It's a shame, then, how overheated and over-articulated The Falling sometimes feels. It's a film loaded with fascinating ideas, and it branches in many directions - offering up plenty of intriguing tangents and implications. We never learn just how real certain symptoms are, or the particulars of any occult leanings. But trouble starts when Morley makes far-reaching attempts at explanation. It’s a subject too dreamy and muddled for clear-eyed analysis, and the latter portion of the film sags considerably under the weight of the attempt. Certain lines of thought are better inferred than stuffed into actors' mouths, and result in some clumsy moments. 

The first portion, though, lingers - it's potent stuff. The girls are guilty of dramatic eulogizing, attention-seeking, copycatting, and maybe worse. But the physical effects of their hysteria - the bruises, tics, and twitches - are very real indeed. Their illness even spreads to one of the younger teachers, suggesting something more encompassing than a hormonal phase. 

This is evidenced by the glimpses we get of the adult women in the film - troubled by unwanted pregnancies, sexual assault, and the inability to communicate. Instead of making the locus of hysteria purely sexual, Morley mines rich veins of female love, envy, and comradeship. In this director's hands, the 'female hysteria' phenomena is ripe for  revision. Though flawed, The Falling's study of shared powerlessness remains compelling. 

Now showing at the Broadway Cinema Nottingham


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