A peculiarly English current of terror — agitated, eccentric and politely unspoken — courses through “The Falling,” an imperfect but alluring study of psychological contagion that marks an auspicious advance in the field of narrative filmmaking for acclaimed documaker Carol Morley. Observing the fallout of a hysterical fainting epidemic that mysteriously strikes a well-to-do girls’ school in late-1960s England, Morley marries a quasi-Victorian premise with a modernist technique that feels drawn from her film’s own milieu: There are shades here of Joseph Losey and Ken Russell, albeit with a staunch feminist perspective. The storytelling may waver in conviction after a woozily riveting setup, but not enough to impede healthy domestic arthouse prospects; further festival exposure should yield select international distribution for this eye-catching conversation piece.
Premiering in the official competition of the London fest, “The Falling” isn’t Morley’s first stab at a fictional feature, though it feels more expansively cinematic than 2010’s less impressive chamber piece, “Edge,” which snuck belatedly into U.K. theaters off the back of multiple accolades for the helmer’s 2011 hybrid doc, “Dreams of a Life.” Peppered with arresting sonic breaks and rapid-fire surrealist imagery (shot in tones of faded amber by Claire Denis’ favorite cinematographer, Agnes Godard), “The Falling” sees Morley completing her departure from a documentary aesthetic. Nevertheless, it’s still something of an investigative drama, picking away insistently at the inexplicable until human rationale emerges. The film’s poised, eerie ambiguity can’t quite hold; clarity is achieved via a third-act plunge into flagrant melodrama.
Pic opens with Mary Hopkin’s madrigal-style 1969 rendition of Donovan’s “Voyages to the Moon” on the soundtrack, aptly setting the tone for a tale that seems at once immemorially folkloric and suffused with radical Summer of Love experimentation. In a strict, stiff-backed girls’ academy in a lush, unspecified corner of the English countryside, the pupils are experiencing their first twitches of social and sexual independence: Radiant, rebellious 16-year-old Abigail (highly promising first-timer Florence Pugh) is reproved by her soured teacher, Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi), for wearing her skirt two inches above the knee, as well as reciting Wordsworth’s Ode with unseemly passion in English class.
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Demonstrable feeling is discouraged in this cloistered environment, and the girls have retaliated by forming intense attachments to one another. If there’s a faintly Sapphic undertow to the relationship between Abigail and her less glamorous best friend, Lydia (prodigiously gifted “Game of Thrones” star Maisie Williams), it appears to have already peaked. Abigail has recently lost her virginity to Lydia’s older brother, Kenneth (Joe Cole), a careless decision that places the girls on an unequal footing — not least when Abigail discovers she’s pregnant. Thus detached from her closest confidante, Lydia has little in the way of emotional recourse: If anything, her home, nervously ruled by her agoraphobic beautician mother, Eileen (“Edge” star Maxine Peake), is more claustrophobic than the classroom.
When the school is sent reeling by a baffling human tragedy, the pupils begin to act out in ways both expected and decidedly uncanny. Most alarmingly, several girls are afflicted by dramatic seizures culminating in a temporary loss of consciousness: First experienced by Abigail, then Lydia, then others in their vicinity (including one young teacher), the fits are evidently infectious, though to what degree the crisis is biological, supernatural or simply staged in solidarity is a question Morley is wise to leave unanswered. As in other cinematic studies of female youth hysteria, such as Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” and particularly Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” the crux of the narrative shifts from the enigmatic occurrence at its center to the slowly devastating impact thereof on surrounding parties.
This is testy, tangy dramatic material, allowing for a range of interpretations — the most obvious positing the mass fainting as the involuntary outward expression of long-suppressed female sexuality, responding to the distant rallying cry of 1960s second-wave feminism. It’s tempting, too, to read Morley’s script, which culminates in a symbolic witch trial of sorts, as a fevered update of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” complete with its own Abigail — though the director has denied any such intention in interviews.
Once the epidemic reaches full fruition, however, Morley’s ideas slightly peter out with a full act — inasmuch as this intuitively shaped film trades in acts at all — to go. Lydia’s vocal impetuosities and justifiable internal grievances are brilliantly articulated in Williams’ bristling, often spikily funny performance, but the character is somewhat stranded by a pileup of lurid, explanatory revelations and recriminations in the finale. It’s a bold shift in register, and far from a ruinous one, but some viewers may wish Morley had trusted her subtlest instincts to the very end. The children’s performances, by and large, weather the film’s tonal swerves more easily than their less sympathetically drawn adult counterparts: Peake, never uninteresting onscreen, is required to play Eileen both as gorgon and dormouse.
Visually, “The Falling” is less pristine than one might expect given Godard’s virtuosic presence behind the camera. Her signature is present in the film’s thoughtfully aged palette and studied, character-attuned compositions, though a certain digital flatness (not present in her recent work on Denis’s HD-shot “Bastards”) has bled into a number of the images. Chris Wyatt’s editing toggles between stately scene-building and blitz-like montage to faintly psychedelic effect. Still, it’s the film’s sharply splintered soundscape — confidently mixing period pop with dreamy new compositions from former Everything But the Girl frontwoman Tracey Thorn, including insidious interludes of xylophone-led playing by Abigail’s “alternative” school orchestra — that lingers longest in the memory.