Title: The Falling
Director: Carol Morley
Major Players: Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake, Greta Scacchi
Out Of Five: 3.5
Put a group of teenage girls together in a strict school and the hormones will seeth. Remember The Brodie set in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie? The girls at the heart of Carol Morley’s The Falling aren’t dominated by one of their teachers, but they do find themselves under the spell of something powerful and singularly mysterious.
The year is 1969 and Lydia (Game Of Thrones’ Maisie Williams) is best friends with the charismatic and beautiful Abigail (Florence Pugh). For no apparent reason, the precocious Abigail starts having fainting fits, which spread to the other girls and one of the teachers as well. Medical tests prove negative, but Lydia refuses to believe there’s nothing wrong and that determination leads her to uncover a personal and deeply buried secret.
In truth, the film itself is rather like Abigail – beautiful to look at, arresting and compulsive watching. But don’t expect this to be a mystery in any conventional sense. It starts out as one, setting us off on a number of different paths, but there’s only one which gets resolved to any degree. Yet it’s the anticipation and the hope of getting to the bottom of things that holds on to you.
Inevitably in a film about teenagers – a coming of age film, if you like – sex makes its presence felt and seems to be at the root of at least some of their problems. That doesn’t just apply to the girls. Abigail’s growing interest in boys and early sexual experiences mark the end of her friendship with Lydia, who is intelligent and perceptive, but deeply troubled.
An air of mysticism hangs over the film. Lydia’s brother Kenneth (Joe Cole) is fascinated by the occult, ley lines especially, but most significant of all is the massive gnarled oak tree in the school grounds. Lydia and Abigail carve their initials there, pledging to meet under its branches every year on the same day. Later on, it’s like a magnet for all the girls and it’s even the setting for Lydia’s reconciliation with her hitherto distant mother, Eileen (Maxine Peake).
It’s a film full of good performances. Florence Pugh is a real find as Abigail, but the acting honours go the ever-consistent Peake, who doesn’t put a foot wrong as Lydia’s mother, the only other adult apart from the teachers and the most troubled of all of them. Agoraphobic, chain smoking, living and working as a hairdresser from home, she hasn’t ventured outside her front door for years. She’s plastered with make-up, including enormous artificial eye lashes that all but conceal her eyes, and is trapped by her past, like a latter day Miss Havisham.
While The Falling doesn’t end in frustration for Lydia, it does for the audience. Most of the questions posed by the film aren’t answered, so we’re left with a fascinating but enigmatic period piece. It re-creates its period well, both visually and in its language. But ultimately it doesn’t wholly satisfy, despite all the good things in it. Or maybe it’s about something that just cannot be explained and we have to make up our own minds.
The Falling is released today in UK cinemas.