The Falling (2014)

June 27th, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Wr/Dir: Carol Morley | Cast: Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake, Monica Dolan, Florence Pugh | Drama, UK, 102 min

Drenched in gothic and supernatural intrigue but with the pique of a spicy black comedy, Carol Morley, director of the haunting quasi-documentary Dreams of a Life, has sculpted a compelling film about a series of fainting fits that plague a 1960s all-girls school.

Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones fame stars as Lydia, a 16-year-old in a traditional countryside school in 1969. Lydia is inseparable from her best friend Abigail, the smarter, sexier, dominant partner in their friendship. But when Abi loses her virginity, a psychological barrier forms between the two of them. It seems to be a case of awe and insecurity rather than jealousy for Lydia, the two girls now separated by a sexual sea change, Abi having crossed the rubicon. She toys with the idea of a possible pregnancy – and soon starts vomiting in the morning and fainting in class: but is it really a pregnancy or just a psychosomatic reaction to her rite of passage. Then tragedy hits the school and Lydia and her friends start to experience the same symptoms, finding themselves rocked by supernatural force.

Morley slowly ratchets up the tension without forcing the pace. Something cruel bubbles beneath the surface of these characters. In her debut, Florence Pugh is convincing as Abi, a difficult first role which she handles with subtlety, and her singing voice echoes Britt Ekland’s Willow in The Wicker Man. Maxine Peake strikes just the right tone as Lydia’s spiky, near-silent mother, a hairdresser who works from home, too afraid to venture outside because of her own brush with a mysterious terror in the past.

Lydia’s brother Kenneth (Joe Cole) talks of magic and the occult being “just what’s hidden” – perhaps the mysterious stream that flows under the school or the magnificent oak tree in the grounds have some pagan significance. Monica Dolan gives an impressive turn as Headmistress, Miss Alvaro, bringing a certain style to the part that feels real to anyone who attended an English High School in the late 1960s.

This is a film that embraces the tradition of the Female Gothic of British letters: suppressed feminine sexuality, hysteria, insecurity and the supernatural – and Morley does her best to create a wildly witty drama from this superb premise that carries the film through some minor script flaws and a rather unsatisfactory plot resolution.

Lydia and her friends are 16 and their sexual coming of age reflects on the state of Britain on the cusp of the 1970s: a country finally facing up to its demons so successfully kept under wraps during the dreamy drug-addled haze of the 1960s; now politically unstable and unprepared for the future. These girls were the offspring of mothers who grew up during wartime and were raised by Victorian parents who were often repressive and certainly a great deal less permissive than today’s generation.

Morley had enjoyed a run of well-regarded shorts when the The Falling, her third feature, made its way onto our screens in 2014. The subliminal images cut into the film feel more gimmicky than revelatory, and some of the early progressive music choices feel out of tune with these teenagers who would more likely have been listening to The Osmonds, David Cassidy or David Essex, or even David Bowie. That all said, The Falling is a brave and ambitious attempt to capture a game-changing era in a psychodrama with a really stunning British, predominantly female, cast. MT

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