Eerie, beautiful, disturbing… Melancholy, menacing, poetic… Alarming, perverse, cathartic… All of these are likely adjectives a viewer might use to describe Carol Morley’s stunning new film, The Falling. I should warn up front that it is absolutely not for those who prefer their movies to proceed at breakneck speed and consist solely of mindless special effects. It is, by contrast, one of those rare, unhurried films that once seen lodges itself in the consciousness in a somewhat disturbing, but not disagreeable way.
For those who recall the subtle, dangerous magic of Peter Weir’s magnificent Picnic at Hanging Rock, this is something of a must-see. Some have called this a British companion piece to that Aussie classic, but quite honestly The Falling is unique in its own right. Yes, it recalls Picnic at Hanging Rock, along with Nic Roeg classics such as Don’t Look Now and Walkabout, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures and Ken Russell’s The Devils, to name just a few obvious influences. But The Falling casts a beguiling spell all of its own, one that will captivate viewers in different ways for different reasons.
For me, this deceptively simple tale of a fainting epidemic in a 1960s girls school is a psychological horror film, though it could never be reductively classified as horror. The ambiguity of why the fainting is happening is what makes the film uncanny and creepy. Is it caused by contagious mass hysteria? Mental illness? Dabbling in the occult? Sexual frustration? Repressed grief? The social turbulence of the late 1960s? Difficult mother/daughter relationships? Or is it a deliberate and staged act of rebellion?
Performances – especially from Maisie Williams as main protagonist Lydia – are all remarkable. Newcomer Florence Pugh is also mesmerising in the pivotal role of Lydia’s best friend Abbie. Able support is provided by the likes of Maxine Peake and Greta Scacchi, and the other young girls in the cast are all completely believable. As a director, Morley has crafted an extraordinary atmospheric tale, with shots of oak trees and rippling waters oozing more menace than the blood and gore of a hundred slasher films. Old school tricks such as subliminal frames are used effectively (albeit perhaps a little too much), and the music score – mostly song and eerie xylophone percussion, courtesy of Tracey Thorn – wouldn’t feel out of place in The Wicker Man.
I should warn that the film contains sexual content, some of it quite shocking thematically. But in my view nothing seemed gratuitous. For me the film felt both authentic and ethereal, combining the realistic with the magical. Even if it does sort-of veer into Greek tragedy in its final act, I don’t necessarily see that as something bad the way some critics have. In spite of the more straightforward drama of the finale, the film is otherwise so utterly soaked in dreamlike ambiguity that the spirit of Picnic at Hanging Rock remains very much alive and well.
In summary, for me The Falling is haunting, evocative and maddeningly thought provoking. You’ll notice I’ve use the expression “for me” a lot in this review. That’s because what you get out of The Falling will depend entirely on who you are. It will be read in entirely different, perhaps unintended ways, depending on the viewer, and as such I think it qualifies as a genuine piece of cinematic art.