As the niece of Tony Scott and daughter of Ridley Scott, there’s no doubt that director Jordan Scott has filmmaking in her blood, but for her feature debut, the helmer has taken on a subject matter far removed from the usual tentpole ready, popcorn spectacle of her father and uncle. “Cracks,” which debuted at TIFF way back in 2009 and is finally getting a release thanks to IFC Films, is a film that seems curiously not to be getting the attention it deserves and we’re not sure why. Assured and elegant, “Cracks” is a complex character study about the illusions we build that keep us from slipping out of sanity.
When we first meet Miss G (Eva Green) she’s a breath of fresh air to the stodgy surroundings of the all-girls boarding school in England. Younger than the rest of staff and dressed in the latest fashions, Miss G has a sort of John Keats effect on her students, who are enraptured by her tales of daring adventure and stern, but effective enthusiasm that these young girls make something of themselves and challenge the conventions. Particularly taken with Miss G is Di (Juno Temple), the leader of the young pack of rebellious girls who fall under the teacher’s care. She is a clear favorite of Miss G’s who holds Di’s accomplishments as the standard and bar for the rest to follow. The rest of the students are only all too happy to let Di guide them and there is an intricate, but steadily held balance of relationships that keeps students and teacher alike on an even keel.
However, all that changes with the arrival of Fiamma (María Valverde). The daughter of Spanish aristocracy, she is immediately an object of intrigue and jealousy among the group. She displays a worldly experience the rest of her classmates don’t have — she’s actually kissed a boy and packages from her parents arrive with strange stamps and ever stranger, more exciting gifts of foods and trinkets — moreover, she has traveled, setting foot in a number of different countries. Miss G immediately takes a shine to Fiamma, but something curious happens — the new student isn’t interested in the attention and she also sees right through her teacher’s tall tales. Miss G is immediately stung and insecure by the rejection and so begins a game of wooing her affections by whatever means necessary; even if it means pitting the other students against her in an effort to keep her in line. In the midst of all this, Di is severely hurt and bewildered by Miss G casting her aside for this exotic new girl and Fiamma is left caught in the middle, between two warring sides to which Fiamma’s approval offers a window into a world outside the boarding school.
Certainly, the thematic breadth of the material is not new. The film is a unique mix that falls somewhere between “Dead Poet’s Society,” “Lord of the Flies” and “Heavenly Creatures,” and as enticing as that sounds, every beat and turn of the plot you’ll be able to figure out well in advance. That being said, “Cracks” remains utterly compelling and moving, largely due to the talent both in front of and behind the camera. Eva Green, who broke out in “The Dreamers” and made her mainstream mark in “Casino Royale,” has since been stuck in failed tentpoles and ignored indies. What people tend to forget is that in addition to being breathtakingly beautiful, Green is a damn fine actress and here she shows off her chops in spades. Watching Miss G slowly crumble from a strong leader to a vulnerable, desperate woman who needs her student’s adoration more than she lets on, is a wondrous transition to watch. Green plays the notes slyly, hiding her deteriorating emotional state behind those smoky eyes and fantastic wardrobe, revealing it instead in small gestures and nervous glances. On the other end of the spectrum, Juno Temple — who will emerge as one of the finest actresses of her age group if someone gives her a shot — remains steely even as Di’s allegiances shift seemingly day to day between Fiamma and Miss G.
But it’s under the guidance of Jordan Scott that all of this works so well. Unlike Ridley or Tony, her camera is unobtrusive, her style unfussy and humble. She trusts in the material — the film is based off a book by Sheila Kohler — and more importantly, she lets her cast do the work. Visually, the film looks gorgeous, no doubt aided by longtime Ridley Scott collaborator cinematographer John Mathieson (“Gladiator,” “Kingdom of Heaven.” “Matchstick Men,” “Hannibal“), but the film also breathes easy in the pacing, which again, shuns the more twitchy techniques of her relatives. Scott shows a natural instinct for letting the dramatic arc of the film unfold naturally without any need to push or prod its flow, and frankly, is a bit refreshing to experience.
With the air and tenor of classic period drama but with a much more modern emotional core, “Cracks” is more than worth your time, even with its resemblance to other similarly styled dramas. It’s rare to find a film so heavily focused on rich, detailed female characters (there are no males in the film except for a few extremely minor parts) and an even rarer one in which they are so well drawn. “Cracks” marks a strong debut from another member of the Scott family, and one we hope to see more from soon. [B]