It is the late nineteen-sixties and Lydia (Maisie Williams) and Abbie (Florence Pugh) are schoolgirls for whom puberty has hit hard, especially Abbie who seeks to go further than her best friend when it comes to exploring what her burgeoning sexuality is capable of. In fact, Abbie is quite the rebel, and though still very close to Lydia there are hints they may be growing apart when Lydia is more careful about who she lends her affections to: indeed, it is her friend who is the recipient of most of that attention since Lydia has no love for a mother who has never shown her any, as far as she can tell. Eileen (Maxine Peake) is that single parent, her husband having left around the time her daughter was born causing no end of resentment, and leaving her an agoraphobic who has hairdressing clients come to the house. But as long as Abbie’s stabilising influence is there, Lydia should cope…
Ah, oh dear, maybe a case of Lydia putting all her eggs in one basket as far as finding a rock in her life goes, but what started as a simple tale of coming of age in a time when social rebellion was troubling many strata of the country, became far stranger with the introduction of a phenomenon that science doesn’t entirely understand. Popularly known as mass hysteria, it has a more medical term these days, but the earlier description stuck, so every so often you’ll hear about groups of people, not always schoolgirls but they often seem to be victims, suffering spells of collapsing or behaving oddly as if afflicted by a brief spell of madness. There don’t appear to be any lasting effects, but neither have there been any convincing explanations thus far, leaving a mystery.
A mystery writer and director Carol Morley exploited for her curious drama almost as an adaptation of poetry here, and you can’t say it was misnamed as there were indeed plenty of people falling over after an incident with Abbie that shakes the community of the school to its foundations. With Tracey Thorn offering near-pastoral pop on the soundtrack, there were lots of fancy editing techniques, including almost subliminal imagery and a dreamlike, often bucolic look thanks to cinematographer Agnès Godard contrasted with the drab interiors to suggest some unknowable, natural forces encroaching on the girls just as they mature. This was very much in the camp of inviting the audience to be in awe of the power of the female, the spirited teenagers contrasted with the more staid middle-aged teachers and the taciturn Eileen (who obviously has suffered some past trauma her daughter hasn’t twigged to).
The reaction to Abbie’s rebellion, which takes the form of her body rebelling against her too when she falls victim to possible pregnancy-related issues, is an outbreak of that mass hysteria. Basically, the girls keep fainting, apparently randomly though it is the brittle Lydia who appears to start the trend, with Williams selling a character who could easily have come across as a silly construct of the writer’s mind when she had to embody all these metaphors and allusions. It was true Morley had a tad too much on her plate, like someone who realised they have one big chance to speak their mind and is determined to babble it all out in one vaguely coherent go, but that made for a provocative experience not everyone was going to get along with, particularly as she was more interested in relating themes and ideas than wrapping up her plot with a neat bow, ironically more memorable than if it had been some slick movie with smoothed-off edges.
Morley was assisted by a brace of fine performances who managed to hold together a narrative verging on the chaotic; Williams seized her opportunities in the lead, Pugh was appropriately enigmatic as the girl who triggered all sorts of troublesome emotions (and lusts, it would seem), Greta Scacchi was exemplary as the figure of authority, a teacher who has no time for the girls’ misbehaviour but finds that stern attitude grows less effective when not everyone is prepared to stay in their place, Monica Dolan as the cooler head teacher kept order as far as she could, sympathetic yet aware that her charges are spiralling out of control, Morfydd Clark was the even cooler art teacher who faints in sympathy, stuck between the older and younger generations, and so on, though Peake managed to be the most unsettling with a study in repressed disgust that erupts in a finale not everybody would accept was the best way to bring things to a close. If The Falling tumbled out of control, then maybe that was appropriate.
[Metrodome's DVD has a short film by the director and a trailer as extras.]