Review: The Falling (dir. Carol Morley, 2014)

The Falling

The Falling
UK, 2014
Director/Writer: Carol Morley

Review by N Emmett.

Abbie (Florence Pugh) and Lydia (Maisie Williams) are two adolescent pupils of a girls’ school in 1960s England. Abbie is already sexually active, having slept with Lydia’s brother Kenneth (Joe Cole). She becomes pregnant, but never gives birth – she drops one day in the school hallway and dies shortly afterwards.

Following the death of her best friend, Lydia begins taking on some of Abbie’s mannerisms and behaviour. She even begins pursuing sexual relations with Kenneth, despite the two of them being siblings.

Is Lydia possessed by the ghost of Abbie? If so, she is apparently not the only one. All around the school, girls begin acting in strange ways; many faint, while others begin shaking and convulsing as though taking part in an animistic ritual.

A project of writer-director Carol Morley, The Falling is an ambiguous piece of work that can be read as a psychological ghost story. Even if the girls are not literally being possessed by Abbie’s spirit, her carefree, rule-breaking influence is clearly lingering on.

fal2On one level, the film is a fable of the 1960s youth rebellion, with the pupils’ strange behaviour a roundabout way of breaking free from their strict surroundings. The school is portrayed as deadeningly prim, a place where feisty adolescent girls are pushed into submission through the forced memorisation of recipes. Abbie, who is introduced to us entering a classroom in a scandalously short skirt, is the antithesis to all this.

Despite the prominent pentagram on its DVD cover The Falling touches only briefly upon the occult revival that flourished during the sixties, with Kenneth occasionally expressing an interest in New Age topics. But intentionally or not, Morley has evoked a fascinating historical topic related to the supernatural. As Philip C. Almond argues in his book Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England, it is very likely that alleged incidents of possession in early modern times were, in fact, simply adolescents finding a neat way thumb their noses at parental and religious authority without punishment. By equating youthful rebellion with spiritual possession, Morley has taken the fal1truth behind the legend and worked it into her story.

A BBC Films production, The Falling takes an attitude of polite worthiness towards its sexual themes. The topics of abortion and lesbianism (with the hormonally confused Lydia implied to have a crush on Abbie) are tackled in an unsensationalised, this-is-how-things-are manner. However, the subplot of Lydia and Kenneth’s incestuous relationship is strangely unexplored and, perhaps, unjustified. This is the one part of the film in which honest depiction of adolescent sexual mores bleeds into mere prurience.

Then again, perhaps that is the point – that the girls have been given no guidance in such matters and are left afloat in an increasingly permissive society, guided only by hormonally-charged curiosity. Abbie’s attitude towards sex is disturbingly flippant: she comes to treat her pregnancy as a small matter that can be fixed with a quick-and-dirty abortion, with no change in her light-hearted demeanour. Her authority figures, it is implied, are simply too prudish to have ever taught her sexual responsibility.fal3

As the film nears its conclusion, the true heart of the story turns out to be not the goings-on at school but Lydia’s relationship with her distant and clearly troubled single mother. This character embodies the theme of neglectful authority: while Lydia is coming of age and in need of guidance, her mother largely ignores her. Caught between cold, harsh teachers on the one hand and a neglectful mother on the one hand, then what is a young girl to do?

The film’s leads do strong jobs of portraying uncertain and unglamourised teenagers. The standout amongst them is Maisie Williams, whose performance as Lydia is a persuasive study in adolescent mood-swings. She switches from shy, doting friend of Abbie to school rebel to incestuous temptress; during the final confrontation between Lydia and her mother, Morley portrays a remarkable blend of wry knowingness and outright despair.fal4

Morley’s direction is a mixture of the gentle and the quirky. For much of the film, she is content to soak up the natural surroundings of the woodland setting and the hard interiors of the blackboard institution. Other times she is more playful, with flashbacks flickering on the screen like TV static. She shows a particular fondness for unusual musical instruments, including a xylophone and a primitive electronic instrument – sometimes these are used by characters, other times they are part of the non-diegetic folk-pop score. Here, as in the script, Morley evokes a convincing 1960s flavour while avoiding the clichés associated with the era.

Aside from the trailer, the one special feature on this release is a short film by Morely called The Madness of the Dance. This is a documentary on the subject of mass hysteria, discussing such strange incidents as meowing nuns, spontaneously dancing Germans and – yes – fainting fal5schoolgirls. Although its script is straightforward the short is very much an arthouse piece, with the historical characters shown as co-existing with the documentary’s presenter – they even join together for a musical number at the end.

The home release of The Falling tries to package it as an occult horror film, but Morley’s project defies such commercially-mandated labelling. Not everything about the film slots together neatly, and doubtless some viewers will be left cold. Be that as it may, The Falling is a clearly heartfelt exploration of adolescent emotional turmoil – and one that is full of innovation.