It was exciting to see that director Carol Morley’s first fictional feature film was being included in this year’s BFI London Film Festival. I saw her documentary Dreams of a Life a couple years ago. I was struck, not only by the incredibly sombre tale of a woman who died in her bedsit and whose death wasn’t discovered until three years later, but also by the clever way the story was told. Through interviews with several people who knew the victim we hear competing tales about a life that was ultimately forgotten. No point of view dominates. The viewer is left with a fragmented picture of why this woman withdrew from life and why others drew away from her. In an age of social media where we’re all meant to be better connected it was a painful reminder of how people can be forgotten.
Morley’s new film The Falling seems entirely separate from this previous documentary, but I believe there are still some parallels between the two films. Set in a rural all-girl school in 1969 we follow the close friendship of Abbie (played by newcomer Florence Pugh) and Lydia (played by Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones). Where Abbie is sexually assertive and has a vibrant (if slightly crazed) affability, Lydia is a virgin and has a more surly personality. They are contrasts between light and dark, yet find strength together as a pair. The film comes to focus solely on Lydia whose life abruptly changes one day. She grows increasingly ill, fainting for no reason that doctors can explain, but her sickness spreads to other girls at the school and even to a sensitive art teacher. The domineering headmistress of the school Miss Alvaro (played by Monica Dolan) looks down upon these incidents as a frustrating case of mass hysteria.
What really struck me about this coming of age tale is the sensitive way the camera focuses on the reactions of many girls at the school. When a disruption from the routine occurs like someone entering class late or a girl falling ill, the viewer can clearly see multiple reactions from the girls to this event. These subtle facial expressions are more telling than any dialogue or voice-over can give. Whenever I’ve been out in public and witness some out-of-the-ordinary occurrence like a person acting crazy on public transport what I like to focus on is the reactions of people around me. Through the unguarded looks of disgust or sorrow or fear from people watching you can read so much about someone’s character and thought process.
That’s what I believe connects this new film to Dreams of a Life. It’s in The Falling’s careful attention to the multiplicity of points of view that we come to understand the general social mood of the time and we see an event refracted through the consciousness of many people. Abbie is struggling to understand herself. Given the emotional repression of the school environment and her withdrawn agoraphobic mother, she’s unable to enter into any sort of dialogue to help her grow. In turn, Abbie grows tyrannical and lashes out. She attempts and partially succeeds in rousing an army of sympathy with the twitch of an eye. There is a strange collective psychology going on here where the anguish of one draws out the repressed anguish of all. It makes a powerful and moving story.
The Falling is also a very beautiful looking film with contemplative shots of the surrounding environment making a sharp contrast to the rigid school setting. It will be exciting to see what director Morley produces next. Interestingly, in a Q&A with the director after the screening she says she’s never seen the play The Crucible. But if you want to go for film comparisons think The Crucible meets My Girl meets Mermaids. But really, The Falling is strikingly original and cleverly portrays its difficult subject matter with clever direction and excellent performances.