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.

Red Riding: 1980 (2009)

aka Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980

2009 #51
James Marsh | 93 mins | TV (HD) | 15

This review contains major spoilers.

Red Riding: 1980The second instalment of the Red Riding Trilogy sets out its stall with a stunning opening montage, covering six years of the Yorkshire Ripper case in as many minutes through news footage and faux news footage. In one fell swoop this establishes its own storyline, fills in some of what’s happened since 1974, and sets itself apart from its predecessor: this one’s based on fact. Well, a bit.

Unfortunately, a factual grounding hasn’t helped the story one jot. Where the first idled, this meanders, flitting between the Yorkshire Ripper, the investigation into the Karachi Club shooting (which closed 1974), and the private life of lead character Peter Hunter. It’s the cover up surrounding the middle of these that’s the most interesting, but that’s also the bit with the least time devoted to it. Most is spent on Hunter’s investigation into the investigation of the Ripper case, though by the end it becomes apparent this exists to cover the ‘real’ story — which is, of course, the Karachi Club cover up. Consequently neither are covered with the appropriate depth: the Ripper investigation is never a serious thread, the team we follow uncovering nothing significant and the Ripper himself captured by chance, off-screen, by a previously-unseen regular constable; and the incidents at the Karachi Club, and their lasting impact, are just about clarified but given no serious weight before a last-minute explanation.

If that sounds complicated, it isn’t. As in 1974, it’s all too straightforward: the people you suspect did it actually did, as it turns out, and there’s no serious attempt to conceal that. In fairness, it just about manages one surprise, right at the end, and the moment after this — where Hunter’s murderer shows remorse with one brief, subtle facial expression — is by far the best bit of the film. Worse than the lack of suspense, 1980 seems to forget its own plot all too often. Hunter is employed by the Home Office, for example, and told to report directly to them and them alone. But then we never see those characters again, not even when he’s later dismissed by lower-ranked officers — why not return to the men he was, supposedly, actually employed by? Other plot points are pushed aside too soon, forgotten about or just abandoned.

Characters and locations resurface from the first film — an unsurprising continuity, but pleasingly almost all appear in a context that’s actually relevant to the plot, rather than a mere catch-up on a previously-known person. Some of them have great import now, their role in the trilogy apparently fulfilled, while others remain little more than cameos with no bearing on the story, suggesting an even bigger part still to play. This works quite well, creating a real world where characters come and go rather than one that is obsessively — and unrealistically — interconnected.

The same can be said of the cinematography. Marsh frequently finds a beautiful or unusual shot, enlivening proceedings considerably. The 35mm glossiness doesn’t evoke the feel of a grimy past quite so thoroughly as Jarrold’s hazy 16mm, but as this is now the ’80s perhaps that’s the point. Nonetheless, the setting conveyed is still a drab, dreary — and constantly damp — North.

Underscored by a plot that doesn’t really come together, and largely bears little relation to the other two films, 1980 is the weakest entry in the trilogy.

3 out of 5