Purely based on the title, and the knowledge that the setting is an austere girls’ school in 1967, you’d be forgiven for assuming Carol Morley’s The Falling would probably centre simply around the classic teenage angst of someone ‘falling’ for someone else – a sweet tale of a girl being smitten with another girl perhaps, given the film’s pride of place in the opening weekend of the BFI Flare Festival – and the love being inevitably unrequited. It does to some extent, but this is only the tip of the iceberg: little would you guess that it also features hordes of schoolgirls quite literally falling down in a dead faint. One after the other, like flies. No, it’s not a horror film, it is real. It’s called Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI), and what a compelling, original and absolutely fascinating idea for a story it is.
In Medieval times they called it ‘Dancing Mania’; nowadays, MPI may have a more assuredly scientific-sounding title but continues to baffle medical experts to this day. Mysteriously more common in women, it involves the spooky spreading of symptoms such as acute nervous ticks, nausea, and most dramatically, mass fainting. As much as the film’s introduction of this little-publicised phenomenon makes you want to delve into the nearest history book and learn more, it deliberately avoids the temptation to be reassuringly documentative or even conform to a specific genre (are we meant to laugh of feel scared?), instead drawing us into a heady, complex and utterly bewildering fog of its characters’ fear, rage, innocence and desire, told in a disarmingly abstract and unique way which – complete with stunning canvas-like cinematography by Agnes Goddard and a gorgeously jittery, surreal score by Tracey Thorn – transcends the film into another realm of artistry.
It is a challenging coming-of-age role for Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams, who finally has the opportunity to embrace something far more substantial than tomboy-with-sword. Within the stifling old school Britishness of punishment and ritual, the cult-like intensity of teenage friendship and a warped home environment, Williams juggles psychological damage and repressed sexuality with guts, gamely leading the fresh young cast with the right balance of innocence and twisted unpredictability. Maxine Peake chills and impresses as the mother; mentally and physically frozen in the forties she is cold, sad and detached from her children. As indeed are the teachers – including those played absorbingly by Greta Scacchti and Monica Dolan, who seem both resentful and frightened of their pupils – with the exception of the much younger art teacher, who appears to represent the sexual liberation of the younger generation (she is the only member of staff to be affected by the psychological contagion sweeping the school and joins them in the swoonathon).
Often alarmingly funny, sometimes shocking, nearly always discomfiting, this is a controversial, stirring and bizarrely uplifting creation that is not to be missed.
The Falling is in cinemas from 24th April 2015.
The BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival continues until Sunday 29th March. Tickets are still available from www.bfi.org.uk/flare
You can follow Saskia Bartlett on Twitter @saskia_bartlett