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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 The Falling

Directed by Carol Morley (2014)

Schools are hugely political spaces, not just because of what may, or may not, be taught, but because of their potential to impose relationships and regulations that seek to bend young individuals to some desired shape in preparation for the ‘outside’ adult world.

Where there is oppression there is resistance too, of course. The student protagonists of The Falling pick obsessively, habitually, at the plasterboard walls of their all-girl institution, a tic against the ticks and crosses of their over-structured education that ultimately breaks out of a filmic symbolism into a rebellion of greater substance.

Carol Morley’s sharply visualised and rather wonderful story is set in 1969, at a turning point in society’s attitudes to the way young women ought to be. Schoolgirl Abbie (Florence Pugh) has discovered sex, and she likes it. It takes her to “another place”, she says. Anywhere but here would do, we suppose.

She wears her skirt higher than the regulation two inches above the knee, as measured with a school ruler on her hands and knees by the visibly repressed Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi). It’s hard to say which of the two is most humiliated by this.

Matters escalate even higher up Abbie’s thigh when she finds herself pregnant. “My body has become a situation,” she says, perceptively. But before that situation develops any further she falls, this time literally, triggering other girls, along with one of the younger, more sympathetic teachers, to gracefully faint away at all sorts of inconvenient moments.

It is, however, no mere inconvenience for head teacher Miss Alvaro (Monica Dolan). Her initial response, casual, dismissive, puffing absently on a cigarette in front of her pupils (which would be the great transgression today) is soon replaced by terror. Falling over has become a form of disobedience that challenges the very existence of her world.

Desperate to defend the system Miss Alvaro plays the target-the-ringleader tactic, singling out Abbie’s best friend Lydia (Maisie Williams) and threatening her with expulsion.

The Falling’s focus turns to Lydia’s home life. She shares a cramped two-up, two-down with her agoraphobic mother Eileen (Maxine Peake) and sexually predatory brother Kenneth (Joe Cole).

Eileen, like Miss Mantel, is emotionally imprisoned by a nasty event in her past, and seems to care only for hair and make-up, her out-of-fashion beehive alaquered fortress against the winds of life.

Lydia, after being somewhat in the shadow of the glamorous Abbie, is by now acquiring a heroic status, bucking system and taboo alike. She claws at walls real and symbolic, but beyond them are more walls.

They send in a psychiatrist, significantly one of the few male characters, who tries to categorise and codify Lydia’s ‘illness’ to gain control.

But she’s already grasping the political, and tragic, dimensions of her fall, haunted by fleeting images of Millais’ Opheliathat wreathe in and out of the film. Ophelia, whose beautiful, watery death promises to dissolve the oppressive structures that seek to bind and limit Lydia’s wild womanhood.

The final scene seems predetermined, yet Morley snatches us back from the brink to live, perhaps, a life better for the experience.

May 5, 2015

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