Hallways stretching out into the distance, meticulously ordered desks and impersonal teachers, the smell of starched uniforms mingling in the changing room with sweaty adolescence. Oh for the good old days. Carol Morley’s evocative portrayal of an all-girls school in the late 1960’s draws effectively on the clash between a conservatively formal education system on the way out, and a rebellious push for equality starting to make a little headway. The same can’t be said for the weakly focussed and underwritten psychodrama playing out over it when a fainting fit sweeps the school.
The story originally follows teenagers Lydia (Maisie Williams) and Abbie (Florence Pugh). Neglected Lydia is stuck with her stay-at-home single mother Eileen (Maxine Peake), literally stay-at-home in that she refuses to ever leave the house, and an occult fascinated sexual predator of an older brother Kenneth (Joe Cole). Her best friend Abbie is the precocious belle of the school, floating ethereally above her classmates. Initially a mildly intriguing teen drama centring on the two of them, The Falling switches quickly into mystery as Lydia, possibly sparked by recent trauma, starts to faint regularly, an affliction that soon spreads across a number of pupils and even one teacher. As the film builds up to a climax of personal revelation, the school authorities attempt to hush up the situation, convinced it is all the creation of Lydia.
When the simple truth of the early scenes is abandoned in favour of calculated chaos, much of it is undermined by predictable plot development. Teachers stray from the path, family discord overheats with alarming ease, and a mood of imminent disaster all too obviously foreshadows forthcoming disaster, both physical and emotional. The fainting phenomenon is further ill-served by Morley’s desire to offer up a number of explanations. There’s an awkward contrast between hysterically overwrought moments of mass collapse and jarringly detached analysis that aims to keep options open straight after.
While this refusal to spoon feed an answer is admirable, casualties are left in the wake of the decision to hold cards close to the chest. Most obviously, characters are given little room to evolve. After driving the first two thirds, Williams’ charisma is wasted as Lydia is gradually emptied out in order to receive family secrets. Newcomer Pugh fares better, striking the right poses, though much less is expected of her. It’s the usually excellent Peake who is squandered the most. Forced to play a restricted bogeyman and underexplored victim in one, she gets controlled looks and brief flare-ups, hardly enough to fashion a real role.
Throw in other creative missteps including a spongy folk score and far too many sculpted shots of gently rustling trees and swaying grass, and The Falling soon collapses in on itself. It ceases to matter whether the poor kids are gripped by a deadly illness, under the control of a malignant personality or trapped in a spiritual underworld. An impressively well-realised backdrop succeeds in giving the film a dreamlike quality, but as with many dreams, it can’t hold together for long.
Director: Carol Morley
Writer: Carol Morley
Stars: Maxine Peake, Maisie Williams, Florence Pugh
Runtime: 102 mins