The Falling ****
Dir: Carol Morley. With: Maxine Peake, Maisie Williams, Florence Pugh, Anna Burnett, Greta Scacchi, Rose Caton, Lauren McCrostie, Katie Ann Knight, Monica Dolan, Mathew Baynton, Morfydd Clark, Joe Cole. 15 cert, 102 min
What strikes you first is that they know too much. From the slow fades, lingering looks and free-associative edits that open The Falling, we infer that the schoolgirls drifting across the frame aren’t the empty vessels their teachers assume. It’s the early 1960s, and sex is moistening even the Home Counties’ drier regions; “magic-with-a-k”, as somebody puts it, is in the air. These girls have butterflies in their stomachs and ants in their pants, so the fainting epidemic they subsequently succumb to almost seems organic: willingly or otherwise, our ethereal heroines are soon dropping like bluebottles into Mother Nature’s welcoming arms.
Carol Morley’s potently suggestive follow-up to 2011’s Dreams of a Life floats multiple interpretations for these curious collapses. The most reductive – mass hysteria – comes, inevitably, from the school’s science bloke (Mathew Baynton): “It’s just a few neurotic types.” Yet the girls’ fainting during a fusty WI talk starts to resemble defiant collective action, a means of rejecting the housewifely poise being drilled into them. (One spark out, all spark out.) Either way, we note, Morley’s youngsters seize the moment, and the attention, in ways their hollowed-out elders – wistful head Greta Scacchi, eerily lacquered shut-in Maxine Peake – no longer appear able to.
Credit ace casting director Shaheen Baig (Peaky Blinders, X+Y) with sourcing these diverse looks and personalities, and assisting in the creation of one indelible friendship. Florence Pugh’s Abbie combines teen-queen bearing with the vulnerability of one still unsure of her own body: like a homegrown Laura Palmer, her presence hovers over even those scenes from which she’s absent. Maisie Williams may be more familiar – she’s Arya Stark on Game of Thrones – yet her Lydia’s something new: a wildflower left to grow toxic, snuggling closer to her BFF by seducing Abbie’s most recent lover. Dodgy call, considering he’s her own brother.
Such complications account for the film’s intensity of feeling, which hails from another era entirely. Morley keeps eliding and pausing time, deploying Tracey Thorn’s spare yet keening songs in dreamy montages that recall such folk-cinema one-offs as The Wicker Man. For all The Falling’s period trimmings, its uncanny power resides in these ellipses and blackouts – in elements that cannot be easily rationalised. Retaining Nic Roeg’s son Luc as producer suggests Morley intends some continuation of those notes of otherness Performance and Don’t Look Now secreted about the British cinema: seizing a moment herself, she’s made a film that swoons with a similar artistic purpose.
The Falling opens in selected cinemas from today.