There are perhaps a number of ways to read the title of Carol Morley’s new film The Falling. It can refer to falling for someone, or it can be as literal as falling down. Both of those things apply here, and yet that does not seem enough to explain what goes on here. Set in an all-girls school in 1969, the film tells the story of Lydia (Maisie Williams) and Abby (Florence Pugh), whose friendship has an intensity that only the combination of youthful energy and the enclosed environs of an institution (in this case the school) can bring. The jumping off point for the strangeness to follow is when the older-than-her-years Abby becomes sexually active. This proves divisive with Lydia who is frustrated by her own lack of experience but there is also a touch of jealousy here. Soon enough, Abby isn’t well (she mentions to Lydia about an orgasm being called ‘the little death’ with a sense of domed prophecy) and a tragic event seems to create a seismic shift in the school (ley lines are mentioned not by accident in this film). Contributing to Lydia’s problems are a difficult relationship with her mother (Maxine Peake) and her brother.”
After a period of time, Lydia seems to develop problems herself and faints dramatically. This seems to create a chain of symptoms that spreads through some (though not quite all) of her fellow students, and even to one of the younger and possibly more suggestible teachers. A scene in a school hall assembly sees the girls start to fall over to become a wreathing mass of bodies seemingly in pain (but possible pleasure too, burgeoning sexuality playing a large part here). The ensuing mass visit to the hospital resolves nothing in terms of a diagnosis to the fainting spells and it becomes apparent that the beginnings of this for Lydia may be found closer to home.
With The Falling, Carol Morley offers a superb follow up to her previous film Dreams of a Life. That film told the story of a woman’s body found years after her death in her flat. There is a loneliness and lack of connection (particularly with family) in that film that sits on the periphery of her new one. Here we see Lydia’s mother who seems to be agoraphobic, but also distant and resentful towards her daughter. The family relationship is fractured much like the girls’ relationships in the school. Morley films all this with a fever-dream quality. It certainly evokes Peter Weir’s classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, with a particular feeling of the importance of the place and the time in terms of areas such as women’s rights and sexual repression. Morley brings a lot of this to the fore. `The mentioning of ley lines adds to this suggesting that episodes like this have happened at various points in history and will surely happen again. The film touches on age as well with the late 1960s and the ‘us-versus-them’ generation. The headmistress of the school Miss Alvaro (Monica Dolan) mentions WWII which was only 25 years earlier and yet here we are on the verge of a sexual revolution.
The third act may divide audiences. We get an explanation (possibly) of why Lydia is the way she is, but it is thankfully not made clear if this is the root of the fainting spells at the school. It works well enough but the melodrama doesn’t fit as comfortably as what came before.
The cast are absolutely outstanding. Maisie Williams steps out of the shadow of her Game of Thrones character to deliver a restrained performance. Newcomer Pugh is excellent as the older Abby, bringing a brittle sadness to the character underneath the showy exterior. Peake does terrific work as per usual, bringing a deeply moving sensitivity to a role that could easily be one note. Unusually, but thankfully, the quality of the acting extends to the rest of the girls in the school. Though mostly just small parts, they feel like living, breathing characters. Cinematography by Claire Denis regular Agnés Godard is dreamy and sublime. The music by Tracey Thorn adds a beautiful and sensuous quality. If the last act had worked as well as the rest of the film we could have been talking about a modern classic. But this is still a very good and rewarding watch. It proves Morley to be a filmmaker of note.