British director Carol Morley produced a stunning debut a few years back, so it is with considerable anticipation (and amidst critical acclaim from the British film world) that The Falling drops onto these shores. Set in a girls’ school in 1969, it tells the strange tale of a “fainting outbreak” and its effect on both the staff and students. Evoking Heavenly Creatures with a homeopathic dash of Dead Poets’ Society, at the heart of the story is the tight friendship between clever, dysfunctional Lydia and the not-so-angelic Abbie.
Morley’s 2011 documentary Dreams of a Life was prompted by a news item about a young London woman whose decomposed body was discovered in her flat three years after she had faded from public life. It is a superb piece of filmmaking, utterly gripping and innovative in its telling, while maintaining a restraint and lack of judgement seldom seen in non-fiction film.
Morley wrote and directed The Falling having previously made a short film about the phenomenon of mass psychogenic illness. But again, while the subject stems from a curious reality, the artistic flourishes are all her own. The period design is impeccable and the girls’ old-fashioned faces so convincing that the film feels like it was made decades ago. To some extent, this datedness excuses some of the slightly jarring acting and aids our suspension of disbelief as suddenly girl after girl swoons and hits the floor.
Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones’ Arya Stark) is strong as the enigmatic Lydia “Lamb” Lamont, and her infatuation with Abbie (a luminously vacant Florence Pugh, perfectly cast in her first acting role) is well-demonstrated in endless montages of lingering looks, gum-sharing and affectionate hair-touching. A surprisingly grim-looking Greta Scacchi provides slightly-stagey support as a tight-haired school marm and British TV’s omnipresent Maxine Peake is great as Lamb’s emotionally mute mother.
But although beautifully photographed and relentlessly thoughtful in its construction, Morley’s film feels overstuffed aesthetically and underwritten narratively – the soundtrack bursts through at every opportunity with loud, plaintive vocals, and a preoccupation with subliminal flash-frames to illustrate a character’s internal conflict feels incomplete in its function. Meanwhile, while a potentially fascinating topic is under-analysed, the preponderance of faux-fainting gets a little irritating. Rather like its characters, ultimately The Falling is awkward, intense, tantalising and slightly annoying.