The Falling (2014)

2015 #141
Carol Morley | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 15

Inspired by real events, The Falling stars Game of Thrones’s Maisie Williams as Lydia, a 1960s teen with an awkward home life who is a student at a repressive girls’ school. She’s best friends with the popular and charismatic Abbie (newcomer Florence Pugh, next to be seen as the lead in Lady Macbeth (which seems to have bugger all to do with Shakespeare)). When Lydia starts fainting for no apparent reason, it leads to a fainting epidemic at the school that no one can explain. Is it caused by illness? Fakery? Something psychological? Or possibly even some kind of dark magic?

On Amazon Instant Video (where it’s available free to Prime subscribers from today), The Falling is billed as “a mesmerising psychological drama”, which isn’t too wide of the mark. However, presumably because of the prominent pentagram on the cover image there, all of the “customers also watched” recommendations are called things like The Exorcism of Molly Hartley, The Houses of Halloween, Haunt, Demonic, and Sinister House, or are other obviously-cheap-trashy-horror-looking films with less blatant names (like The Canal, Awaiting, and Robert (chilling!)). No wonder it has a low user rating if it’s a “psychological drama” being mainly watched by people who choose to pay to watch that kind of low-rent horror crap!

The Falling is certainly not low-rent horror crap. Is it a horror movie? Not really — there are no monsters, no jump scares, none of the obvious tropes; but it does have a distinctly unnerving air a lot of the time, and there are definite references to and hints about some kind of mysticism playing a role. It’s often incredibly atmospheric, with some beautiful cinematography courtesy of DP Agnès Godard and effective editing by Chris Wyatt. Writer-director Carol Morley has kept the pace and tone slow, in an enchanting rather than ponderous fashion, but it’s a “not for everyone” pace nonetheless. For me, it only really lost its way as it moved into its final stages. Without wanting to spoil where it goes, in my opinion too much was explained, but at the same time it explained nothing.

Indeed, I feel it might’ve fared better overall if it had stuck with the magical-realist / folk horror / olde-worlde magik styles it veers towards early on. But then Lydia says she’s a rationalist, and I suspect Morley is too, and so they well know that such things as spells and lay lines have no bearing on the real world. If one wants to present the possibility of a real-world explanation for the film’s events — and, as they were inspired by actual events, I presume Morley does — leaving things at “because magik” isn’t going to cut it.

The immediately obvious explanation — certainly as far as the school’s teaching staff are concerned — is that the girls are faking for attention. One comment-review on a website asserts that “one of the central questions of the film is whether or not the girls were faking their illness,” before going on to outline how this could’ve been improved to make the film into an “entertaining thriller”. I think this is a prime example of reviewing what the reviewer expected or wanted rather than what they were given, because it didn’t seem to me that the issue of fakery was the “central question” here. Of course, that’s only my interpretation of the filmmaker’s intent, so no more or less valid than this other commenter’s; but I really don’t understand how you can watch The Falling and think it was anyone’s goal for this film to be considered an “entertaining thriller”. It’s simply not that kind of movie.

An element I do think was at the forefront of consideration is sensuality and sexuality, which plays a large and significant part in the film. Pretty much any movie bar “bawdy high school comedies starring obvious twentysomethings” seems to veer away from schoolgirl sexuality these days, wary of inevitable “OMG u a pedo” reactions, I guess. Sexuality does not equal pornography, though; and, as I alluded, here it’s played out as much through a heightened, tactile sensuality. It does probably ‘help’ that it’s a film written and directed by a woman — it would carry a very different, more Lolita-ish air if it had been written or directed by a man. What exactly it’s saying with all this is arguably as mysterious as the cause of the fainting epidemic, but then it’s all tied together: teenage years are a period of sexual awakening, of course, and if you’re in an environment where nearly everyone is of the same gender, and where such things are massively repressed… well, how is it going to manifest itself? If “sex” is somehow the cause of the fainting, it’s not because sex is bad, it’s because there’s no other appropriate outlet for it.

Or maybe that’s got nothing to do with it at all.

A lot of this has to be carried on the shoulders of a relatively young cast, but all are capable. Maisie Williams is by far the best known of the girls, though viewers of Ripper Street will recognise Anna Burnett. She was good in the Victorian detective series, but she’s even better here. Williams gives a strong performance too, afforded the ability to show some range and variety from Arya Stark (unlike her appearance in the currently-airing Doctor Who two-parter-that-isn’t, for instance). There’s also a quality adult supporting cast, including the likes of Maxine Peake (in an initially quiet but ultimately key role), Greta Scacchi, and Monica Dolan, while Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole acquits himself well in the subtly complex role of Lydia’s brother. Best of the lot, however, is Florence Pugh. Reportedly discovered when The Falling’s casting directors visited her school, you can see why she’s quickly been snapped up for a leading role. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood come knocking looking to make her the next Kate Winslet/Keira Knightley/Gemma Arterton/etc “English rose”-type lead in some blockbuster or other.

The Falling is an odd film, really; though in many respects that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Some will love it; many will despise it. Personally, I felt a lot worked very, very well, but the bits that didn’t, well, didn’t. For what it’s worth, I ranked it 3.5, aka 7, on sites that have half-stars or are out of ten. It would’ve been a solid 4 if not for those niggles, but equally they’re not so bad to drag it down to a 3. Some viewers seem to put the niggles aside entirely and push it up into the 4.5 or even 5 margin; for others it doesn’t work at all, dragging it down much lower. Everyone’s reaction to any film is completely subjective and personal, obviously, but this is the kind of film where it’s more true than others — you can’t pigeonhole it like you can a superhero actioner, or a rom-com, or, well, most movies, to be honest. It’s part high school coming-of-age drama, part supernatural thriller, part kitchen sink drama, part arthouse tone poem. How well that uncommon mix works is entirely down to the individual viewer’s personal predilections.

For me, it’s the kind of film that, with time and subconscious reflection, I may come to remember more fondly and be keen to see again, or all but forget. It’s the kind of film I could, without even re-watching it, re-evaluate and want on my year-end top ten, or could see on my top ten contenders long-list come January 1st and wonder, “dear God, what was I thinking?!” It’s the kind of film I’m not sure I wholly liked, but I’m glad I’ve seen.

4 out of 5

As mentioned, The Falling is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video from today.

Dreams of a Life (2011)

2015 #151
Carol Morley | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK & Ireland / English | 12A

In 2006, the body of 38-year-old Joyce Vincent was found in her London bedsit, surrounded by Christmas presents and with the TV still on. Sad, but largely unremarkable, were it not for the fact that she’d been dead for three years.

Carol Morley’s documentary attempts to uncover the story of Joyce’s life, and how it reached a point where no one noticed she’d been gone for so long. It’s told mainly by her friends and colleagues (her remaining family, perhaps unsurprisingly, declined to take part), who paint a picture of an attractive, outgoing, personable woman; but also one who was a social chameleon, adapting to her current group of friends, and sometimes disappearing for months at a time. Later, her life seemed to follow a more tragic path, though details are scant for various reasons.

As it goes about encapsulating a life that ended so tragically, Dreams of a Life is surely one of the most heartbreaking films you’ll ever see. Consequently, I don’t quite understand the negative reaction you’ll find in some comments sections online, because I thought it was unmistakably powerful and affecting. I know this is a review of the film rather than other people’s reactions to it, but, well, as much as I found the film insightful and upsetting, some of those reactions angered me, so let’s have a go at them anyway.

Some people seem to view this as little more than a detective mystery, and are frustrated that Morley ‘chose’ to leave out details. I guess such critics have no understanding of things like confidentiality (when it comes to why Joyce was in a women’s refuge and what she disclosed there), rights to privacy (if the family don’t want to be interviewed, you can’t force them), the realities of investigating a real-life case (maybe some people who knew her in those final years just don’t want to be found), or human decency (Joyce led a fragmented life that came to a terribly sad end, and all you can think about is why she didn’t leave a few more clues around for you to deduce what happened and why?!)

Some people outright refuse to believe the story. “It’s implausible no one noticed her bills hadn’t been paid for so long.” Well, that’s what happened, kiddo. Whether it seems plausible to you or not, it obviously occurred. I don’t wish to tar an entire nation with the same brush, but the people who find these parts incredulous often seem to be American, generally because certain things work differently in the UK to the US. There’s a certain type of person who seems to believe the entire world operates in the same way as the US (not just Americans — thanks to the overabundance of US films and TV, it’s been observed around the world that there are people who think their own country has the same laws/rights/etc as the US), but obviously that isn’t true, and this is a case in point.

On the more considered side of the internet, there’s a reasonable debate to be found about the filmmakers’ right to tell the story at all. Joyce kept her life story secret even from some of her closest friends, and yet here it is being picked over in a movie for anyone to see. Is it moral to do such a thing? Should she not just be left in peace? Are the extraordinary circumstances of her death a good enough reason for this level of prying? Surely her death and how it came to occur needs to be understood, though, and surely the only way to do that fully is to examine her life. But is that not the business of inquests and the like, not films? But then, the filmmakers seem to have dug up information the inquest didn’t get close to unveiling. Perhaps the question is, when does society’s interest justifiably overtake the rights of the individual? Does it here? I’m not sure. Maybe.

One criticism I will side with is that the film is sometimes frustratingly put together. The accounts of Joyce’s childhood and early 20s are jumbled up, flitting back and forth in time. The viewer has to piece together the chronology; a challenge for no particular reason. Dramatic recreations of her life are largely pointless, though arguably necessary in a visual medium. Actress Zawe Ashton portrays Joyce in her 20s and 30s, but any scene where she’s required to give a performance — to do more than just walk around in a dumbshow recreation of that life — feel too much like a needless dramatisation, not the fact-based reenactment you’d expect or want from a documentary.

Nonetheless, these flaws can’t detract from the fundamental power of the story being told. If you come away from this thinking not about how sad it was for both Joyce and the people who knew her (especially Martin, especially in the film’s final moments), or what you should or could perhaps be doing better in your life, but instead being angry that it didn’t satiate your ghoulish need for full and frank revelations… well, I don’t know what to say about you, but it wouldn’t be very nice. Through this incident, Morley and her interviewees are really making bigger points about our society and our relationships. It’s no one’s fault, per se, that this happened to Joyce, but that it can happen is horrendous.

5 out of 5

Dreams of a Life is on Film4 tonight at 1:30am.