Maisie Williams (tomboy Arya Stark of Game of Thrones) and Florence Pugh (freshly discovered, British schoolgirl newbie) co-star in The Falling as Lydia and Abbie, gum-sharing best friends at an all-girls school in the late 1960s. Director/writer Carol Morley (Dreams of Life) beautifully captures the horrid isolation of the female teenage existence in the film – with stark imagery and an eerily whimsical soundtrack, all the while packaging the story in an interpretative mystery.
Abbie maintains herself as the contagious Queen Bee of a socially diverse friend circle, gathering worship from nearly everyone with whom she has human contact with the singular exception of their life-hardened teacher Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi). Meanwhile, Williams’ bookish, strong-willed Lydia appears rejected at every turn, most painfully by her terrified, mousey mother (Maxine Peake), a shut-in who hides her contempt for Lydia by only rarely speaking to her. As Abbie becomes sexually adventurous, Lydia sees her best friend slowly pulling away as well.
Abbie falls ill, literally falling to the ground due to a mostly unidentified sickness, amidst the growing tension between her and Lydia. Her fainting spells quickly transfer to Lydia, who is also found collapsing to the ground after slowly writhing her body and waving her hands, much to the dismay of the school administration. As more girls begin to fall, the school’s powers that be wonder if their pupils are truly diseased or if they’re just copycats. Sick Lydia fights to be heard in a world where no one cares what she has to say, even when she’s hitting the floor in dramatic fashion.
Williams brings obvious aspects of her Thrones character to The Falling, as the two admittedly have traits in common. Just as Arya finds herself alone in an enormous, uncaring world, Lydia has always been alone with the exception of Abbie, in their niche corner of life. They both struggle with their identities and aren’t afraid to share their opinions or express themselves. However, whereas Arya’s existential crises float in the background of her immediate danger, Lydia’s anguish is much more first-world. Williams shows an added emotional depth here with awkward grace and constant heartbreak. She’s able to constantly steal your sympathy, making this haunting and strange film personal for young female viewers in particular.
Both Lydia and Abbie recite the poet William Wordsworth, functioning almost hand-in-hand as lyrics to the film’s score, but it’s Lydia who cannot help but remember “The things which I have seen I now can see no more,” a line clearly illustrated in the film. Frequent, choppy images like that of subconscious memories bring Wordsworth to life while further eliciting the mid-pubescent mindset, contrasting wonderfully in a film that’s otherwise clean and cool with slow, panning shots.
Tracey Thorn’s superbly gloomy soundtrack, which evokes the bittersweet feeling of a magical rain, foreshadows events seamlessly in conjunction with the arboreal cinematography, constantly cutting to gorgeous shots of falling leaves or leaves that will be crunched underfoot. All the while, Morley’s script perfectly paces evidence for multiple interpretations for the girls’ “falling,” be it an actual illness, a social phenomenon, or an occult happening – or as Kenneth would label it, “magic with a ‘K.’” At different points it’s easy to be convinced of one explanation or another, just before Morley catches you for easily accepting simple explanations with brilliantly placed dialogue from the film’s reluctant matriarchs.
The Falling is a bewitching, phenomenal film that gets the helplessness and sexuality of teenage femininity right. Maisie Williams proves herself as more than just Arya Stark, surrounded by a cast of skilled adults and teens alike, carefully representing the multiple walks of a young woman’s life. Unforgettable characters and clever dialogue round out this eerie, pretty little film.
The Upside: Director/writer Carol Morley accurately projects the internal struggle of being a teenage girl with a spot-on cast, crisp cinematography, and a somewhat-spooky soundtrack
The Downside: If flashing images give you a headache, this film might not be for you
On the Side: Young Abbie from flashbacks is played by Rafaela Pugh, the younger sister of Florence Pugh.
The London Film Festival runs October 8–19, 2014.