Carol Morley’s psychological drama The Falling is one that will stay with you long after its over. Beautifully put together, disorientating and haunting, this is a film that undeniably casts a spell on its viewers.
Set in an in an all-girls school in 1969, The Falling could be described as an offbeat coming of age story. The narrative follows passive aggressive but tenacious student Lydia Lamont (Maisie Williams) through issues of self-identity, changing friendship, burgeoning sexuality, and tragic loss, all of which culminate in her enigmatic illness: a series of fainting fits that spread throughout the school, creating a situation of mass hysteria.
Where the real intrigue of Morley’s film truly lies is in its ambiguity, in its lack of an explanation. A popular conclusion to draw might be that the fainting fits are a direct psychological response to the trauma Lydia suffers in losing her best friend Abbie (Florence Pugh), that are then unconsciously imitated by her classmates. However, the careful way in which the whole film is constructed makes such a simple explanation feel precarious. Agnès Godard’s cinematography and Tracey Thorn’s musical score, alongside editing and direction, create a film that walks the line between real and imaginary. Extreme close ups on the girls’ hair, skin, lips, eyes, create an indulgent, sensory experience that reflect the peaceful idyllic setting before its disruption, while later on the shots jerk and blur, as unpredictable as the girls’ mysterious sickness. The accompanying score is simultaneously eerie and upbeat, somehow both melodic and discordant, building to crescendo but always abruptly cut off, pulling the viewer back to reality.
The fainting fits themselves are perhaps better described as a dance, a strange and disconcerting, unchoreographed, dream-like dance that cannot be controlled or predicted. The Falling seems to trick its viewers into engaging with the action and aligning with the girls, playing with the viewer’s sense of perception, their knowledge of what is real and what is illusion, so that by the end they are as unsure of their grip on reality as Lydia Lamont and her classmates.
Amongst the myriad of potential meanings that this film presents, one that I could not ignore was the way in which the affliction becomes somehow empowering, an act of defiance for the teenage girls. The link with nature is irrefutable; Abbie’s love of Wordsworth’s poetry (the natural imagery in these poems emphasized throughout the film), the sacred oak into which Abbie and Lydia carve their initials as a recurring symbol of their love for one another, the rippling pond perhaps as a reflection of the girls’ unsettled minds. Throughout the film the afflicted girls, their coming of age process, is equated with nature: raw, often disturbing, and hypnotic. Though the obscure and imprecise nature of the film was potentially its most engaging quality, there was one thing I felt The Falling was clearly saying: teenage girls are a force of nature.
There are flaws; towards the end the narrative perhaps began to lose its way, and there was a fairly messy attempt to tie up loose ends. The incestuous sub-plot worked well in its earlier forms of suggestion: Lydia asking her brother Kenneth what it was like to ‘be’ with Abbie before stroking the hands that had touched her communicated her desire to be close to Abbie again when she no longer could, but fully realized pushed the film into a moment of melodrama that overall it was so good at resisting.
These flaws are hardly relevant, though. The film displays some of the most beautiful sequences I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing on a cinema screen, and complete with gorgeous cinematography, an entrancing score, and practically perfect performances from the entire cast, The Falling is certainly not one to be missed. Carol Morley continues to show her talent as a director, and I greatly anticipate her next venture.