Director Carol Morley Cast Maisie Williams, Florence Pugh, Maxine Peake
UK, 2014, 1hr 32 mins, 15
The Falling’s writer and director Carol Morley brings her first full length feature film to screen, marking the culmination of a career making predominantly documentaries, by producing this hazy meditation on emerging adulthood.
In tone and feel The Falling is reminiscent of the Australian Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, 1975), which sees a boarding school group of girls on a trip inexplicably disappear. Morley has alluded to Antipodean influences, additionally citing the work of Jane Campion and her first feature film Sweetie (1989). This explored the relationships between sisters, in particular an increasingly tension filled dynamic, reflected in the friendships of Morley’s leading cast, alongside a hint of mysticism in the air. The immersion in the world of a girl group facing the disruption of adolescence also finds a point of recognition in The Virgin Suicides (Coppola, 1999). Alongside Campion, Morley’s dual writer/director roles and visual approach place her alongside UK peers such as Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay.
Graduating from the Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, Morley has amassed a significant collection of short films, touching upon ideas which find themselves surfacing again here, such as in The Alcohol Years (2000), where Morley revisited her younger years to piece together a five year period between the ages of 16 – 21 which were lost. It is in The Madness of the Dance (2006) however, that the clearest connections emerge.
The Madness of the Dance examines a combination of mass hysteria and individual compulsions such as biting and trichotillomania, so called “psychic rebellions.” A Professor (Maxine Peake) takes the viewer on a journey through hysteria in varying forms across the centuries. It was “the ancient Mediterranean world (that) traditionally believed that bodily symptoms we now call hysterical were caused by a womb which wandered throughout the body.”  The Hippocratic era notion of the “wandering womb” finds itself under consideration in The Falling, where this collection of hysteric behaviours finds itself transposed and focused in one arena; an all girl’s school in 1969.
The central pairing of The Falling comprises Abigail (Florence Pugh) and Lydia (Maisie Williams). The intensity of their friendship, exhibited through the carving of their initials into a tree together, lingers in a suggestively romantic area. In the way that girls play with each other’s hair, and share their darkest secrets, there is an intensive intimacy entwined with the friendship. This close bond is disrupted in the light of Abigail’s sexual experiences with boys. In the study of mass hysteria there is often the identity of a natural leader, someone particularly charismatic. It finds here two leaders of the charge, in both Abigail and Lydia.
The film opens with a shot of the water, the lake in the school grounds, reflecting the leaves of several looming trees. Their colours are transforming into those of autumn, setting an expectation of an environment on the precipice of change. The film’s themes are also clearly established, as the water soon gives way to the moon, which leads into a science class on the subject of the egg. Womanhood and adolescence are bound up with nature from the initial opening scenes, providing a context of burgeoning sexuality within which the plot of mass hysteria unfolds.
The film employs techniques such as the use of visual layering and a nippy cutting style. The latter is mostly factored into the episodes of hysteria which manifest themselves through fainting spells. The effect is jarring, and disorientating, creating a temporal discontinuity. The technique is used lightly, but effectively plays on notions of perception, which are also wound throughout the film. The dreaminess lends itself to the quality of a nightmare, as what is real and what is not become difficult to discern.
These edited montages could be a collection of skewed memories, recent or long past. This kernel of a reference to collective memories neatly aligns with Morley’s method for her process of creating the film. In a recent interview she explained how she “…thought about what age the characters would be now or which of them would be dead. And what they would say about the events in the film now…” The often hypnotic transitions between scenes, the layering of flowers to faces to bark to tree, offer a presentation of the fragmentary manner in which the mind can piece thoughts together.
The mood of the film is further buoyed by a score which comes from musician Tracey Thorn. The schoolgirls are part of an Alternative Music Orchestra, led by Abigail, whose compositions gave inspiration to Thorn’s score. School instrument favourites – the recorder, the triangle, the xylophone – combine underneath the drip drop knock on wood of a marimba sound. Through this, a hint is given at the cumulative effect of one fall after another to come.
While the school children insist their affliction is real, the majority of the teaching body beg to differ. This results in a conclusion of psychological cause, rather than physical ailment. An out of shot psychiatrist cross-examines the group, the most discernible nod to Morley’s documentary roots emerging in the interview style which is utilised. While the film broadly alludes to repressed issues finding expression in the hysteria outbreak, the message speaks beyond this. These are girls who are kept contained, regimented, and moderated by the school system and the expectations placed upon them. As these restrictions tighten the underlying discontent flows, and bubbles over. These girls have something to say, and they will be heard.
Originally written for and published on glasgowfilm.org