Noted documentary director Carol Morley’s psycho-sexual drama The Falling sets itself up to be a triumph of women’s cinema. Written and directed by Morley, shot by Agnès Godard and featuring an almost entirely female cast, the film seemingly tackles female mental health head-on with the period story of a 1969 fainting epidemic at an all-girls English boarding school that is immediately dismissed as mass hysteria. Unfortunately, Morley never fully explores the historical lack of understanding of female psychological problems but instead offers an ultimately limited story of sexual awakening.

Abigail Mortimer (Florence Pugh) and Lydia Lamont (Maisie Williams) are those inseparable companions all too common in stories of all-girls boarding schools. They share everything, with one exception. Abbie is the first to begin exploring her sexuality, and her interest in boys puts a strain on her relationship with Lydia. When the two discover that Abbie is pregnant, they make plans to “take care of it,” but Abbie experiences more than simple morning sickness. Her woozy episodes send her into trances in which she looks skyward and faints majestically. After one such episode ends with Abbie abruptly dying, Lydia and the rest of the girls begin spontaneously fainting left and right. The girls believe that there is something seriously wrong with them. The administration chalk it up to foolish schoolgirl behavior and, later, hysteria.

The visual and tonal touchstone is Peter Weir’s classic of schoolgirl hysteria, Picnic At Hanging Rock. Morley similarly attempts to blend mystery, the supernatural and kitchen-sink realism. Think of it as a cross between Hanging Rock and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures with a dash of Gothic tension from the likes of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. In that Gothic vein, Morley adds hints of horror, most noticeably during the girls’ fainting fits. Morley shows them writhing sensually on the floor while indiscernible images flash ominously across the screen. The trouble is, Morley provides these understated visual cues and does nothing more. Abbie’s seizing death recalls The Exorcist; Lydia’s brother quietly mentions ley lines (mystical alignments of ancient sites or holy places) under the school; the girls’ fainting episodes look like mini-raptures.

Morley likely thought she was emulating the haunting ambiguity integral to Hanging Rock‘s spell. In that film, we never do find an answer to the mysterious disappearance of three schoolgirls but are left wondering if it was a straightforward disappearance (or abduction), if something supernatural was at work, or simply if they ran away. But The Falling is anything but ambiguous. The film opens with a rendition of Mary Hopkin’s “Voyage of the Moon” and a recitation of William Wordsworth’s “Recollections of Early Childhood,” all while Abbie and Lydia carve their names into a tree. The lullaby-love song is sung in a virginal voice, and the poem blatantly laments the loss of innocence. Abbie emphatically announces, “There hath passed a glory from the earth,” as Godard’s ethereal images of the vestal lake and trees swim across the screen. So Morley reaches a narrative plateau within the first few minutes of her film.

This mystery is simply yet another in a long line of films that drum up tension from the fear of female sexuality and the loss of sexual innocence. The plot comes to a screeching halt once Abbie dies and Lydia starts a fainting craze. As the film moves through one repetitive fainting scene after another, Morley provides opportunities for the audience to read into the impetus behind the epidemic, her hints largely supporting the view that it’s all a sham. Lydia appears to pressure other girls into performing rapturous faints and nonchalantly boasts that she is “in the more advanced stages” and understands their illness best. The director maintains an eerie tone throughout the proceedings, but her efforts to mystify and disturb fall short when the bulk of the remaining film is just one montage after another of girls falling out to the accompaniment of gentle, surreal pop music (courtesy of Tracey Thorn). The harsh clap of bodies hitting the floor one after another becomes comical very quickly.

The “shocking reveal” of the finale has no bearing on the school’s fainting epidemic, but solely relates to Lydia and her developing identity. In fact, Morley’s emphasis on a seemingly supernatural mystery is ultimately an elaborate red herring. Once the school administrators commit to debunking all that fainting with “science,” Lydia is forced to sit with a psychiatrist and tellingly posits that “One person is really like three people: the person you think you are, the person other people see and the person you really are.” Perhaps the film’s final revelations will help her come to terms with herself and her budding sexuality, but they certainly don’t explain why a school full of girls spent weeks writhing on the floor. The unexplained falling episodes merely prove to be a single overlong digression in one girl’s path to maturity.

  • Out of Blue

    A maudlin, incoherent snooze of a thriller that takes itself far too seriously. …
  • Dreams of a Life

    [xrr rating=4.0/5]No one noticed when Joyce Carol Vincent disappeared. Not her family, eve…
  • From the Vaults of Streaming Hell: Koi…Mil Gaya

    Few films will leave you as borderline offended, flabbergasted, entertained and touched as…
  • Oeuvre: Campion: Holy Smoke!

    Holy Smoke! manages to revisit some of the same themes as The Piano yet in a less cohesive…
  • Mountain

    Like Planet Earth, Mountain offers beautiful shots of some of the most treacherous places …
  • Come Play

    More dedicated to hastily papering over the cracks in its concept than to developing the g…
  • Oeuvre: David Cronenberg: Rabid

    Rabid feels like the director’s first work that is fully and unmistakably his. …
  • Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

    Sacha Baron Cohen has pulled off another unbelievable coup. …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

From the Vaults of Streaming Hell: Koi…Mil Gaya

Few films will leave you as borderline offended, flabbergasted, entertained and touched as…