The Falling (2014)

First published by Grolsch FilmWorks

It’s the late 60s, in the colourfully decaying months between Summer and Winter. As Britain teeters between postwar puritanism and sexual revolution, the pupils in a rural girls’ high school are undergoing an analogous transformation that will set them at odds with their teachers, parents and other authorities.

At the forefront of this youthful rebellion is Abbie Mortimer (Florence Pugh), insubordinate, experienced, and seeking to cure herself of an unwanted pregnancy through magic (“with a k”) sex with Kenneth (Joe Cole), the nerdy older brother of her best friend Lydia (Maisie Williams). When Abbie collapses at school, her fall triggers a rash of fainting fits and twitchings, with disturbed Lydia at its epicentre. At first the school’s middle-aged headmistress (Monica Dolan) and deputy head (Greta Scacchi, here cleverly haunted by the sexier rôles of her youth) try to contain this psychogenic outbreak by ignoring it, but as it spreads rapidly through the student body, and even affects one of the younger teachers (Morfydd Clark), Lydia is left to prod and probe some intimate secrets.

In Carol Morley’s follow-up to Dreams of a Life (2011), the moon, traditional symbol of witchcraft, is used to underscore a pervasive theme of mystic feminine empowerment. With the first lunar landing glimpsed on the black-and-white television of Lydia’s housebound mother Eileen (Maxine Peake, who also starred in Morley’s 2010 feature Edge), the moon itself is often seen here shining its borrowed light on the film’s more nocturnal events, while also propelling the girls’ emerging menstrual cycles. Indeed, eggs – their production, their fertilisation, their destruction – form a recurrent motif, and the fact that they are, according to the school’s only male teacher (Matthew Baynton), “still a mystery to science” makes them an apt emblem of the film’s own happenings, unable to be explained by the teachers, doctors and psychiatrist who pore over them.

As The Falling riffs on the hermetic feminine spaces of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Heavenly Creatures (1994), Innocence (2004) and The Woods (2006), it plays an appealingly coy game of suggestion as to the cause of the affliction that has taken hold of the school, keeping viewers guessing whether it is a repression-induced collective psychosis, or a coven’s power, or the ley lines that Kenneth insists run along the adjacent river. Accordingly, the film’s genre proves as fluid as Lydia’s developing identity, caught between an oppressive, inherited history and an uncertain future.

Eventually The Falling ditches its poetic abstractions for a more prosaically solid form, and resolves its own mystery – as Peter Weir or Lucile Hadzihalilovic never would have done – with the final-reel revelation of a home truth that is as melodramatic as it is bathetic and banal. The film is moodily shot and eerily scored, framing the girls’ hysteria as a kind of folk ritual – but in the end all that repetitive falling becomes a failing, as the unengaged viewer wills things on to their disappointing dénouement and just wishes all that adolescent playing out would finish.

Anton Bitel