There is a perilously fine line in most arthouse-oriented pictures between generating eye-opening epiphanies and inviting eye-rolling groans. What is worse, it is a line that is not only narrow but largely invisible. What works for one viewer does not for another, and it is ultimately impossible to know in which half of the audience one is going to sit until they’re in the middle of the film.
And that is honestly fine. This is ultimately what good film critics are for: not to tell you whether or not something is objectively good, because most of art is largely subjective, but to tell you whether or not they value the work. Read enough reviews by the same person, and you will soon calibrate your taste against theirs and get a pretty good idea of what is and is not worth your time and effort.
This is all a roundabout way to state that, while Carol Morley’s 2014 mystery drama The Falling was widely acclaimed and praised – particularly by critics in its native United Kingdom, I found it a tedious chore to get through. On the surface it seems a solid bet for the kind of independent, inventive film that I usually enjoy. In a 1969 all-girls academy, and following the death of one of its students, a mysterious series of fainting episodes begin to affect the students. It begins with one young woman and then spreads throughout the school. It is a phenomenon that has been witnessed in real life, and forms a genuinely great basis for an unsettling supernatural thriller or horror film.
Sadly it is not a horror film, but a drama about teenage sexuality – and not, to be honest, a great one. Matter-of-fact direction and photography rob it almost entirely of atmosphere – as does an uncomfortably low production budget (not necessarily a problem, but a screenplay has to work with what it can afford). Early scenes that promise unexplained behaviour and slow-build revelations are not justified in the final narrative. Indeed, some last-minute revelations during the film’s climax push The Falling from the rather ordinary to the bafflingly ludicrous.
The musical score, by Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorn, is a jarring hodge-podge of folk tunes and inappropriate whimsy that further diminishes any chance to form a proper impact on the audience. In many ways it is emblematic of the production as a whole: good, talented people making something that simply fails to hit its mark.
There are some decent performances – both Maisie Williams and Florence Pugh do a decent job, and the supporting circle of teenage girls feel very authentic and believable – and some weaker ones. At the weaker end the cast feel betrayed by poor characterisation and unwanted stereotypes. Greta Scacchi is uncharacteristically poor as a mean-spirited teacher. Monica Dolan chain-smokes her way into self-parody as a dismissive head mistresss. Maxine Peake suffers badly with a poorly developed character arc based around an agoraphobia that feels tangential to the rest of the film.
This is not the first time I have entirely failed to enjoy a critically acclaimed movie, and I can pretty much guarantee it will not be the last. Opinions are going to vary – and that is okay. It is why it is great to have a lot of varied film critics offering them.