The Falling is a dreamlike story of a fainting epidemic among pupils at a girls’ school. It is director Carol Morley’s first feature film, following her haunting 2011 documentary Dreams of a Life.
Set in a damp England in 1969, the times are changing, but the stuffy school in which the action takes place couldn’t be less swinging. Most of the teachers are stuck in the 1950s — if not austerity Britain of the 1940s — particularly Greta Scacchi’s Miss Mantel, who initially recalls Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Sixteen-year-olds Lydia (Maisie Williams) and Abbie (Florence Pugh) have an intense friendship. Abbie is a charismatic force of nature. She recites a Wordsworth poem in a thoroughly over-dramatic way and the other girls in the class are enraptured, with shining eyes and blushed cheeks and little gasps.
Morley has drawn wonderful performances from her young cast. Only Williams (Arya from Game of Thrones) has any real acting experience — Pugh and many of the others had never acted before. Yet they are able to convey the real physical pain and ecstasy of new emotions and feelings.
The film explores the way these young women relate to each other — mimicking and wanting to experience what others experience. But there is also the fear of being left behind such as Lydia’s anger when she realises Abbie has had sex, and maybe moved into a new realm without her. All the young women are dealing with their relationships with the adults in their lives. Maxine Peake plays Lydia’s mum, a home-hairdresser who gives her clients “outmoded beehives” and never leaves the house. She is cold and distant towards Lydia while treating her brother with affection.
Following a tragedy Lydia begins fainting in class, soon followed by her closest friends and eventually most of the students. Starting perhaps from Lydia’s own pent-up rage and grief, it escalates into a form of collective resistance to the stultifying rules of the school and the world they live in. As Lydia becomes a leader, the headteacher’s first response is to isolate her and then to claim she’s faking it. As Lydia says to her fellow students, “It’s them and us.”
Mixed in with the spirit of the 60s is the young women’s sexuality. They touch each other and hang on Abbie’s every reference to her experiences. Fainting is associated with pregnancy, which fascinates them but which they fear. Although abortion has recently been legalised, they don’t feel this applies to them.
A mass fainting in a school assembly becomes like a medieval depiction of some biblical rapture. There is an element of mysticism running through the film. Lydia’s brother Kenneth claims the school is built on ley lines, and the moon is a recurring feature. Their natural surroundings are a major feature — the mighty oak trees and murky water outside the school windows.
And this is really Lydia’s drive — to force things out into the open, clear the waters and open the windows.
Things get messy, but Morley’s film is haunting and moving, and one of the best explorations of teenagehood I’ve seen in some time.