The Falling almost feels like it was conceived by a middle age man who was damn near throwing in the towel on trying to get a read on his teenage daughter(s). That is not the case. It is instead directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Carol Morley, who almost approaches this film like a phenomena for study. She narrows in on an all-female secondary school in 60’s England, as a mysterious bout of what is described as hysterical psychological contagion sweeps through – you have my permission to jump on Google. The whole hysteria thing carries some ambiguity and isn’t initially played out to be deciphered. I feel like this is a film that winks a lot at girls. I certainly wasn’t in on any threads. I genuinely wonder what ladies think of this film.
Morley has a good ear for music as this opens with a soothing British sounding (I assume) folk song, which is one of the entries to this film’s appealing musical assortment. We make our way to this unnamed secondary school, that has a knack for stifling its young students prime among them, the buoyant recalcitrant 16-year-old Abigail (Florence Pugh). She is late to class, wears her skirt too short and is a little too passionate during a poetry recital – not that the latter is a bad thing, but you get the sense of the overbearing system surrounding her. Abigail is best friends the more conforming Lydia (Maisie Williams) and their relationship has an odd note of brooding homosexual tendencies with the whole gum exchange and finger on lip action, but that’s just by the by. Abigail sexuality isn’t really in question though, and she unashamedly expressive of it. She has recently lost her virginity to Lydia’s older brother and later reveals she is pregnant, putting their friendship in an odd place.
This development leads Lydia in some form of intimacy midpoint, seeing as her friend was her one source of emotional fortitude. There isn’t much to go on with her brother initially (till Morley feels the need to spice their relationship with incestuous undertones) and Maxine Peake brilliantly plays her mother as a nervy agoraphobic case, quite distant from her daughter, with good reason. We never get to see how Lydia handles this rift with her best friend as the whole hysteria thread is soon kicked into gear when Abigail collapses and hospitalized. What follows is a number of the school girls, led by Lydia, being afflicted by spontaneous fainting spells and bizarre seizures that are initially alarming, then comical and then simply fascinating to watch.
It feels like there’s more at work here but nothing definite: possibly a cry for help, or a coping mechanism to a tragedy that befalls the students, or uncanny feminist protest to the stifling school structures. There is the temptation to even construe it as some spiritual slut shaming in response to the girls' bursting sexuality. The lack of focus of regarding the fainting leaves the film in a welcome tonal limbo. We can’t tell for sure if a grief card has been dropped, or the film is venturing into satire mocking perceptions of teenage girls, or plain spiritual territory as the mystery unravels. But the nuanced Williams as Lydia takes this film beyond the bizarre, giving a voice and some physicality to whatever mystical symbolism the audience may deem at work. She is viewed as a feisty maverick by her school authorities and accused of instigating her mates fainting spells. As defiant as she is, we can still sense something broken, a vacuum perhaps that needs filling in this poor girl’s soul. But help doesn’t come, just a witch hunt by authorities.
The ambiguity Morley infuses carries the film till the final stages where we find some sour resolution for Lydia. And this move by the director is a tad counterproductive, lessening the weight of the bizarre events beforehand – it almost cheapens it actually. The Falling is much stronger when time is spent trying to get a read on the collective of intriguing teenage females on screen, and our director should have just let them be and savoured the magic at work.