For fifteen years or so, there’s been a steady stream of hugely promising female filmmakers coming out of the U.K. It started with Lynne Ramsay and “Ratcatcher,” continued with with Andrea Arnold and “Red Road,” and more recently we saw the highlighting of Clio Barnard, director of “The Arbor” and last year’s acclaimed “The Selfish Giant.” Could the latest in this talented line be Carol Morley?
The filmmaker has been making shorts, both in the fiction and non-fiction world, for decades, but truly broke through back in 2011 with “Dreams Of A Life,” a searingly sad investigation into the life and death of Joyce Carol Vincent, a 40-year-old woman who died alone in a tiny flat in London, and who wasn’t found for over three years. Now, Morley has returned with her highest-profile purely fictional film to date, “The Falling.” While it doesn’t entirely deliver on the promise of “Dreams Of A Life,” there’s more than enough to make it worth investigating.
In a girls’ school somewhere in the British countryside in 1969, Lydia (Maisie Williams, best known as Arya Stark from “Game Of Thrones“) and Abbie (striking newcomer Florence Pugh) are the best of friends, with that particularly intensity that comes with the friendship between sixteen-year-old girls. Lydia has a semi-troubled home life, with a father she never knew, and a near-silent hairdresser mother (Maxine Peake), who she despises, and who seems to despise her back. Abbie, meanwhile, is starting to to experiment with boys, including with Lydia’s brother Kenneth (Joe Cole, from “Peaky Blinders“).
They’re seen as troublemakers at school, particularly by spinsterish deputy head Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi). And that only continues when, after a tragedy, Lydia, and then other girls and even staff members, begin to fall into trance-like states and then faint. It spreads like wildfire, to the consternation of the authorities (it’s a phenomenon known as ‘mass hysteria,’ or ‘mass psychogenic illness’), and turns the lives of everyone concerned upside down.
The comparison with the likes of Ramsay and Arnold probably isn’t wildly helpful, there’s little of the kitchen sink to be found here. Instead, if you were going to compare “The Falling” to any of the recent wave of British filmmakers, it might be Ben Wheatley. There’s some abrasive, almost fourth-wall breaking editing at play in places, and a distinct whiff of pagan lending a strangeness to proceedings. But the biggest touchstone here is Peter Weir‘s classic “Picnic At Hanging Rock,” with which it shares an interest in female friendship (and competition), burgeoning sexuality, and unexplained, possibly supernatural happenings.
It’s when “The Falling” plays in this territory that the film really soars. There’s real thematic density here, and at its best, it refuses to give any simple answers, reveling in the complex, contradictory feelings that come with growing up. It’s a film of atmosphere and mood, and its unsettling quality is a hard one to shake, hours and days after the credits roll. Morley’s again found some fascinating material to dig into, and her textured and nuanced screenplay provides plenty to chew on.
And yet at the last, the film ends up taking the easy way out, descending into a more familiar sort of family melodrama, with a hackneyed twist that feels like it’s lifted from a different movie entirely. The direction, too, can feel cheap sometimes. Those attention-grabbing, iMovie cuts early on feel tonally discordant (to say nothing of the song-score by Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn, which stands out like a sore thumb), and the photography, by Claire Denis regular Agnes Godard, is disappointingly and digitally flat.
Morley does enough right that you can mostly overlook the bad. Casting in particular is a boon to the film. Williams backs up what we’ve all learned from “Game Of Thrones” in the last few years, that she’s a major talent to watch, while Pugh is a real find, and Peake, Scacchi, newcomer Morfydd Clark, and especially Joe Cole, all do solid work in support. But it’s still slightly frustrating as a whole. Every time the picture opens a fascinating door, you’re held back from going through by a naff filmmaking choice or a rote story move. It’s not the step up we hoped for from Morley this time around, as such, but there’s also enough here to ensure that we’ll still be paying attention wherever she goes from here. [B-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 BFI London Film Festival.