Maisie Williams, best known to date for her ongoing portrayal of the tomboy Arya Stark on HBO’s Game Of Thrones, is the star of this eerie, unsettling chiller by Carol Morley that occasionally taps into the same ethereal spirit of the ’60s and ’70s golden age of British folk-horror. Set in rural Oxfordshire in 1969, Williams plays Lydia Lamont, a rebellious teenager who is falling in love with fellow pupil Abbie (Florence Pugh) at an austere, traditional all-girls school. They are close friends, but the precocious and popular Abbie has started having sex with boys and is pregnant as a result, which goes some way to explaining the lack of fuss made by their teachers regarding the pair’s intimacy (though admittedly their burgeoning relationship is largely kept private in toilets and bedrooms). Both girls react against the stuffiness of their wood-panelled school and many of its teachers, while Lydia also has an unhappy home life, contending with lecherous older brother Kenneth (Joe Cole) and her disinterested hairdresser mother Eileen (a captivating Maxine Peake), who can barely look her own daughter in the eye.
The narrative takes a strange turn following an unfortunate death, and subsequently a bout of unexplained fainting sweeps through the school; at first just Lydia is affected, but rather than simply falling to the floor she appears to be lost in a kind of rapturous trance before eventually hitting the deck. Soon other pupils follow suit, swooning in the middle of their classes and daily assemblies, suddenly collapsing with a flurry of strange moves that looks more like interpretive dance than anything else. An art teacher is also affected, discrediting the belief of the stern, older mistresses (one of whom is played by a barely-recognisable Greta Scacchi) that the girls are conspiring together and faking the mass hysteria.
Much of the film’s charm lies in writer-director Morley’s ability to keep the reason for the fainting ambiguous. Even when medical professionals and psychologists become involved it still doesn’t become clear; there are, after all, real life cases that are similarly unexplained. Is Lydia faking it, aping the genuine collapses of the pregnant Abbie? Are Lydia’s friends pretending too, with some simply not wanting to feel left out? Is Lydia actually possessed or inherently evil? An ongoing tic with her right eye indicates that she is in some way controlling the actions of others (or at least believes that she can). Is it anything to do with an external occult influence, most obviously manifesting itself through Kenneth’s amateur interest in magick? Or is the communal ‘hysteria’ genuine?
Whatever the reason, and there are certainly suggestions near the end of the film that are emphasised more strongly than others, the communal fainting can be read as a metaphor or a signifier of a number of different things: when passing out at home Lydia is presumably seeking the attention of her mother, while the group collapses at school represent a streak of rebelliousness among the girls as they react to they push back against the oppressive environment (there’s a hint of the disobedience found in Lindsay Anderson’s If… about some scenes, though Lydia’s angry outburst in an assembly ends far too quickly, before it really gets going). The fainting could also be read as a sexual metaphor, representing a sexual awakening, or even menstruation. As Morley herself has pointed out, the literal Greek translation of ‘hysteria’ means ‘wandering womb’.
Throughout Morley’s cinematographer Agnès Godard provides a number of images of trees and reflections in water, an ongoing motif that reflects the pastoral setting while also seemingly adding to the film’s folky strangeness. Ley lines are mentioned, and a much-seen lake in particular both foreshadows the ending and also recalls the opening of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, another touchstone for the director. Peter Weir’s haunting and similarly ambiguous Picnic At Hanging Rock is an influence, as is Ronald Neame’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, while there is a slight hint of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides too, although The Falling is far less of a dreamy, romantic piece; Morley’s film also recalls a kind of down-to-earth, late-60s, egg n’ chips Englishness too, although there plenty of swaying leaves and girls dancing wistfully around old oak trees.
Parts of the soundtrack also help to establish and continue the eerie mood: some of the girls have formed an alternative orchestra at school, which I really wished had featured more, and there’s something of The Wicker Man in Pugh’s bedside guitar strumming. That said, although there has been much praise elsewhere for Tracey Thorn’s songs, which make up the bulk of the soundtrack, I felt they jarred a little with the film’s mood, and didn’t quite work for me.
Morley manages to extract something from each of her influences, though sadly this ambitious and intriguing work falls short overall (no pun intended). There is plenty to admire: a successfully-created chilling mood being the most obvious. There’s also a refusal to obviously signify the period outside of wallpaper decoration and a brief glimpse of the moon landing (as viewed on TV, by an agoraphobic character), which I liked. Although the period in question is associated with dramatic cultural and social change, in England and elsewhere, it means nothing to these girls (or even their teachers or the other adults that feature), who seem nullified or trapped by a formal status quo. When discussing the option of abortion one girl points out that it is now legal (it was legalised in the UK in 1967), only for Abbie to deadpan ‘yeah … but not for us’. If things are happening, they’re most certainly happening elsewhere, and not in rural Oxfordshire.
Also worthy of mention is the fact that the young cast members bravely tackle some uncomfortable subject matter; there were one or two scenes here that I found extremely challenging. Williams deserves credit in particular for her handling of some quite disturbing material during the latter stages of the film, but there are occasional stumbles in her performance; it’s difficult to not think of the young Stark she plays so well on TV, and while I think she is OK, it’s a tough ask to shoulder the majority of the weight here. I look forward to seeing more of her in the future though.
Sadly The Falling feels like a missed opportunity to me; a passably good film but with plenty of unrealised potential. It’s disappointing that Morley finally falls back on the default of kitchen sink drama, in doing so neatly explaining away certain personality traits and the absence of a father in Lydia’s life, when toward the end a greater emphasis on the film’s already-established weirdness would have sufficed. By all accounts some critics have found it haunting, but I have a feeling I’ll have forgotten much of it before too long.
Directed by: Carol Morley.
Written by: Carol Morley.
Starring: Maisie Williams, Florence Pugh, Joe Cole, Maxine Peake, Greta Scacchi, Monica Dolan.
Cinematography: Agnès Godard.
Editing: Chris Wyatt.
Music: Tracey Thorn, various.
Running Time: 102 minutes.