Carol Morley’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed Dreams of a Life makes for an interesting experiment.
Itself a dreamlike drama, set in a strict English girls’ school in 1969, the story follows Florence Pugh’s charismatic Abbie and Maisie Williams’ (of Game of Thrones fame, whose performance has only gotten better over four years of that show) Lydia – an intense and troubled girl. After a tragedy occurs, a mysterious fainting epidemic breaks out among not just students but staff, too.
To go into this film expecting answers to the fainting epidemic is folly; such real-life ‘hysterical’ epidemics exist, and they are without scientific explanation or resolve. Ergo, it would be disingenuous for a filmmaker to include the phenomenon in their art and claim to have an answer.
The real truth of The Falling exists in the mystery of Lydia’s mother (an on-form Maxine Peake) and her cold, callous attitude toward her own daughter; wherein one minute she’ll be attending to one of her customers (as a hairdresser based out of her own home), ignoring Lydia, and the next be extra-attentive and caring towards Lydia’s best friend Abbie.
Where one might choose to begin viewing this story with the assumption that Lydia’s mother, Eileen, is simply a horrible woman, it is counter-intuitive; Maxine Peake’s performance suggests something is off from the get-go. The secret behind what that is ties the entire film together; what’s unfortunate is that us as viewers have to go through a core section of bumpf to get there. The bumpf in question being the hysterical fainting epidemic sweeping through school; a futile storyline for close, scientific scrutiny, but perhaps an interesting subject of socio-psychological debate.
The unfortunate part being that it’s simply not interesting enough to maintain two thirds of the film’s runtime, and the lack of resonation with the finale is glaringly obvious – and an incense-based subplot is grossly miscalculated.
Regardless, Williams continues along her upward stream into becoming one of the country’s brightest young talents, and Pugh presents herself as a standout discovery. Writer-director Carol Morley, although losing focus in the middle block of her endeavour, strings everything together with the effect of experiencing a lucid dream.
Her soundtrack choices are on point, a true collaboration with Tracey Thorn self-evident in the work. The music captures and draws you in, helping to immerse you in the fever-like experiences of the mass fainting epidemics. The soundtrack feeds into the overall aesthetic of the film; which is dark, haunting and unnervingly treads the line between dream and nightmare, certainly leading to a visceral experience.
The actresses playing the young protagonists are natural talents and future stars, an eye to be kept on them going forward. For director Morley, it’s a confident, assured follow-up to Dreams of a Life – albeit one that could use a little more focus in the script department.
Review by Daniel Woburn
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