Carol Morley’s follow-up to the lauded Dreams of a Life (2011) shares a thematic through line with its predecessor. That documentary investigated the story and circumstances of a young woman who was found dead and alone in a North London flat in 2006. Morley’s new film once again mines a central mystery, this time a fictional one based on real life phenomena. The Falling (2014) is a slowly beguiling drama that revolves around an unfathomable spate of collapses occurring in a girls school in leafy 1960s England. It’s a singular and enthralling work that may have flaws, but overwhelms them with a palpable atmosphere both alluring and strangely disconcerting.
That milieu is also evident on screen for the group of schoolgirls who suffer an outbreak of a mass psychogenic illness. Even before the hysteria sets in, they exist in an unusual environment, charged with both sexual and psychological tension. This is at its greatest in the intimate BFF relationship between the whip-smart Lydia (Game of Thrones‘ Maisie Williams) and the ethereal class beauty Abbie (Florence Pugh). Boundaries seem to overlap – assuming there are any – and the profound depths of their emotional and hormonal turmoil are readily apparent. Abbie habitually worries a flushed cheek and a sensory cascade of images intermittently flit onto the screen suggesting some concealed inner torment. For Lydia, it is the potential loss of Abbie that nettles.
“Admit it, you think we’re over,” insists Lydia at one stage, giving vocal expression to the gulf that has opened between them with her friend’s sexual awakening. The pubescent cusp on which they rest surely plays in to the fainting spells that follow but Morley is generally more concerned with evoking the feeling that surrounds the epidemic than flatly laying out its causes. This is more than complemented by Tracey Thorn’s unconventional and entrancing score and the cinematography, lensed with elegant naturalism by Claire Denis’ regular DoP Agnes Godard. It perfectly captures the dew-laden greenery of rural England, while lending a sublime air of mysticism to the towering and twisted old oak under which the girls make their invocations. Moments in which supernatural explanations are offered – a lay line runs beneath the grounds of tree and school – raise a titter and there is a rich vein of deadpan humour to be found throughout.
Another scene sees the sceptical headmistress (Monica Dolan) unfussily wakes Lydia from her unconsciousness with a sharp prick from a brooch pin. But droll comedy is far less the point, and neither are metaphysical hypotheses. Far more meaningful and interesting is a nuanced and authentic exploration of social affinity and adolescent female sexuality as attitudes evolved into the 1970s. Equally culpable in Lydia’s increasing tumult is a neglectful agoraphobic mother played by Maxine Peake. But ultimately it all comes back to Abbie and the effects of her pioneering encounter with la petite mort. The Falling seeks to conjure the same uncanny quality that compels its characters and makes for an infatuating and illusory experience.
The full Glasgow Film Festival 2015 programme, ticketing details and more can be viewed at glasgowfilm.org.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson