AN outbreak of unexplained fainting takes place at a strict girls school in 1969 England in The Falling, an intriguing and often intense coming-of-age mystery drama from the director of Dreams of a Life, Carol Morley.
Focusing on the friendship between Lydia (Maisie Williams) and Abbie (Florence Pugh in a debut role), the two, though close, could not be more socially different. While Lydia remains virginal and uninterested in misdemeanour, the more energetic Abbie explores the lines of promiscuity and antagonising the authoritarian teacher Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi) by deliberately breaking strict dress code.
As time progresses, Abbie starts randomly fainting and eventually, in mysterious fashion, passes away following one such spell. The impact on the school is all to see, not least so with Lydia, who finds herself also subject to random and continuous bursts of fainting. This in turn creates a cycle where most of the school (including the art teacher) begin to suffer from the exact same spell of sudden and random fainting.
Adding in a dysfunctional relationship with her hairdresser-from-home mother (Maxine Peake), her exploration of sexuality and her supposed influence on the school, Lydia’s downward spiral is all to see as her lifestyle gradually mirrors that of her late rebellious friend.
Once the fainting spells begin, the intrigue is there. Part of why the film succeeds at this is the use of likely theories as to what is going on. It can be assumed that the fainting epidemic is too high to be a coincidence but there is also a possible suggestion early on that it could be an act of fakery on Lydia’s part.
This is documented in one sequence where the suspicious headmistress Miss Alvaro (Monica Dolan) plainly ignores Lydia following one such spell. In one bravura sequence however, a lecture in an assembly turns into a scene of unexpected surrealism as one-by-one, many pupils faint much to horror and shock of the initially sceptical teachers, making the viewer query what they really think.
In an emotionally-charged performance, Williams steals the show with a lead performance involving a well-crafted and diverse use of emotions ranging from shock to fury, bewilderment to humoured, as her behaviour progressively changes from one side of the coin to the other.
As a film which deals with the supposed notion of young rebelling against authority, it carries a sense of genuine intensity, especially in the climactic confrontation between mother and daughter where unpredictability plays a crucial part.
Though the film delivers use of intrigue and is anchored by a series of wholly convincing performances from its cast, the film does not feel great at any time though. It might have genuine intensity and a well-expressed sense of atmospheric direction, but this is no masterpiece because of a lack of consistency.
The early scenes where Lydia and Abbie socialise do not feel remotely entertaining and it is only when rebellious activity involving the adults is displayed that the film elevates itself to showing the entertainment value that is expected from it. By making the Lydia character far more interesting than the Abbie character, there does feel that the balance of featuring interesting characters throughout has not been perfectly matched. It does feel that once the Abbie character leaves and the fainting epidemic begins, then it can start to really begin the phase of interest, which it takes some time to do.
By moving to areas where intrigue goes for a short time, the general viewpoint is while the bulk of scenes are welcome, scenes which feature development of Lydia’s brother or teachers privately socializing do not engage the way others do.
The Falling does have some flaws, but these can be compensated for thanks to its general stance as a gripping and very atmospheric piece, featuring one of the most eerie scores heard in a film for recent years.