BEV reporter Manish Agarwal is enthralled by Carol Morley’s mass hysteria drama The Falling…
A piece of cake on fire. TV’s leading tomboy held aloft in a Jesus Christ pose. A chain-smoking, beehived Maxine Peake. Autumnal gold and green reflected in a fathomless lake. An amorous, occult-obsessed supporting character who always introduces himself as “Kenneth never Ken”. Bedroom dancing to ‘It’s Your Thing’ by The Isley Brothers. Tracey Thorn’s shadowy, fever dream soundtrack. An onscreen musical ensemble called the Alternative School Orchestra, majoring in xylophone, recorder and triangle. Subliminal inserts evoking mental rupture. One of those massive, gothically gnarled trees looming implacably beneath an inky night sky.
It’s tempting to just list the many eye- and ear-catching elements of Carol Morley’s extraordinary new feature and leave it at that. You’ll know if The Falling is for you. The story is simple enough. “My fictional account of an epidemic of fainting set in a girls’ grammar school in 1969,” is how the film’s author described it in a fascinating Observer article documenting her research into mass psychogenic illness.
The Mancunian writer-director uses this specific phenomenon as a lens to examine such universally resonant themes as burgeoning adolescent sexuality, so-called female hysteria, society’s perennial repression of teenagers and the wayward course of young friendship. She’s aided by Agnès Godard’s vivid cinematography and a pitch-perfect cast, principally Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams as the quick-witted Lydia and newcomer Florence Pugh as her precocious pal Abbie (named in tribute to Abigail Williams, the first person to claim to be possessed during the Salem witch trials).
The Falling contains all the nuanced emotional heft we’d expect from the architect of wrenching reconstructive documentary Dreams of a Life (2011) – be it the the acidic mother-daughter exchanges animated by Peake and Williams’ fiercely committed performances, or the quieter moments shared by Monica Dolan’s idiosyncratic headmistress and Greta Scacchi’s outwardly domineering deputy. (It’s a measure of Morley’s compassionate spirit that the teachers are portrayed as flawed human beings, rather than stock authority figures.) The film is drily funny too. Deadpan. Sharp as biting your own tongue.
This particular movie milieu has some notable antecedents: Peter Weir’s pathfinding Australian mystery Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), Peter Jackson’s sui generis Heavenly Creatures (1994) and Sofia Coppola’s heady, atmospheric The Virgin Suicides (1999). Morley’s singular take on her material also suggests a kinship with another homegrown filmmaker, Peter Strickland, whose recently released, women-only The Duke of Burgundy conjures and sustains a hermetically sealed world similar to that depicted here (albeit one focusing on adult behaviour). The Falling is likewise presented without explanation, its creator prizing the power of suggestion over hairpin plot mechanics. Audiences allergic to exposition dump cinema should form a queue. Nothing is spelled out, leaving the viewer spellbound.
The Falling is released theatrically in the UK on Friday April 24 by Metrodome.