School Daze: Carol Morley on The Falling

A fainting epidemic befalls a strict girls' school in 60s Britain in The Falling. Director Carol Morley invites you into this balmy world of teenage secrets and mass hysteria

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 09 Apr 2015

It’s 8.30am on a bright February morning in Glasgow. The Falling, a heady tale of teenage friendship and mass hysteria, played to a full house at the city’s film festival the night before. Its director, Carol Morley, was out toasting the film’s Scottish premiere with a few drams after the screening. So it’s a surprise to find her so chipper as she sips on a coffee in her hotel’s bar. “I’ll probably be quite slow on the uptake,” Morley says as I sit down. She’s anything but.

Talking at a clip, the 49-year-old Stopfordian is full of anecdotes and digressions as we dig into her strange and seductive new movie. Set in 1969, it follows the fallout of an unexplained fainting epidemic at an all-girls secondary school. The seed of The Falling’s story was planted in Morley’s head over ten years ago by a friend who told her about a medieval village whose residents couldn’t stop laughing. This led her down a rabbit hole of research into mass hysteria – or to use its medical term, mass psychological illness.

“I think what fascinated me most is that they are still a mystery,” Morley explains. “Even though [psychologists] can detect the pattern of it, they don’t really know why they occur.” What makes mass hysteria such a juicy subject for a filmmaker is that the condition appears to be some sort of collective response to the concerns of the day. “Nowadays when they happen they’re often around anxiety about toxic things, or maybe terrorism or food poisoning, or something like that. In the 50s they seemed to be about atomic stuff. A lot of the ones I read about in the 60s seem to have an underlying anxiety about sex and sexuality, and changing morality about sex.”

Despite setting it in 1969, one thing Morley didn’t want to do was evoke the Swinging 60s (“you know, because only about 600 people on the King's Road had that”). But she did like the notion that this was a period of great change. “I like to think of it as a time when young people were kind of getting infected by ideas,” she says. “And I really like the idea of the 60s as an adolescent age, in a way. It was on the cusp of something. It just felt like a time when a lot of philosophical ideas were circulating.”

Using a girls’ school as a backdrop for this study of psychological contagion seemed full of possibilities too. “[Mass hysterias] always happen in closed institutions,” she explains. “A lot of them happen in schools, and a lot of them happen to women as well.” Morley’s theory for the condition’s gender imbalance is that female relationships are more intimate: “I think teenage girls talk more and so communicate their symptoms more, which is why they might get a mass hysteria – so I was sort of fascinated by that. Plus I think female friendships can be very intense and you’re constantly struggling with who you are at that age. People go in different directions. Things become unstable, I guess. And your whole body is kind of being a traitor to you in a way as you enter that mysterious adult world.”

The Falling centres on one particular friendship, between Abbie (impressive first-timer Florence Pugh) and Lydia (Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams). At the start of the film the relationship is practically sapphic, with Lydia clearly infatuated with her luminous best friend. “I felt that Abbie had to be somebody that the whole school wanted to be,” says Morley. “The look I was going after, because I have annuals from the time, was one of the girls on those teen magazine covers: blonde, blue eyes, glamorous.” The friendship seems to sour, however, when Abbie reveals she’s lost her virginity. In fact, she suspects she’s pregnant. The setting makes this teen pregnancy all the more significant. “In 1969, the Abortion Act has just come in to make them legal, but they were still only really available to married women in certain circumstances. So you wouldn’t be that age and go to your doctor, you just wouldn’t.”

Abbie is the first to faint, perhaps caused by her pregnancy. But soon half the school is at it. And not just fainting. In one extraordinary scene during an assembly the girls' condition manifests as a kind of seductive dance, a woozy revery. Some of the teachers succumb to the contagion too. Even the school’s no-nonsense headmistress (Monica Dolan), who’s convinced the whole thing is an elaborate prank thought up by the rebellious Lydia, feels her knees start to buckle.

Morley creates a balmy atmosphere for this strange and lurid tale to play out in. The school setting is claustrophobic, but the exterior shots of the unspecified bucolic countryside, shot in vivid colour, are equally stifling. “I’d always had this idea of the Renaissance, so you have the greens, the blue, the gold, so that’s the school uniform, but the production designer used it throughout the whole film.” On camera duty was one of the best cinematographers in the business: Claire Denis’s regular lenser Agnès Godard. “I remember saying to her that I wanted it to feel like we just found the film,” Morley explains. “I don’t know why I said that but she got really into the idea. Although Agnès has worked on all these amazing films, she genuinely approaches something like it’s her first time. It’s really exciting.”

"I really like the idea of the 60s as an adolescent age. It was on the cusp of something” – Carol Morley

The lush, sensual visuals call to mind the films of Jane Campion – Morley reveals that the Kiwi filmmakers short A Girls Own Story and Sweetie were major influences – while her startling use of moments of rapid-fire editing suggests Nic Roeg or Joseph Losey “Chris Wyatt, the editor, and I talked about that early on,” she says when I bring up these distinctive montages. “I almost wanted it to be like the film was fainting, and sort of breaking down.”

The film's trump card is Williams. Best known as Arya Stark, Game of Thrones’ pint-sized bruiser, she brings a similar intensity to Lydia. Remarkably Morley hadn’t, and still hasn’t, seen the show. “We looked at a lot of girls. I knew what Lydia had to be like and I wasn’t finding her. When the casting director suggested Maisie I went online and looked at her giving interviews and I was like ‘Oh my God, I love her already.’” To pull off the central conceit, it was vital to find an actor of Williams' charisma. “In a mass hysteria there’s always a central person. There might be a trigger, but the central person is always someone you admire, so it was very important that both Maisie’s character Lydia and Florence’s character Abbie were people that you could admire. And as soon as I met Maisie I knew she’s the kind of girl I’d want to be my friend at that age, and I’d want to follow.”

Following the critical success of Morley’s 2011 documentary Dreams of a Life, The Falling represents an impressive advance into narrative filmmaking. After two decades of toiling at the coalface of the British film industry, it’s a well-deserved achievement. “For any filmmaker it’s difficult, and you just have to keep pushing at it. So for me it’s getting easier, hopefully, because you’ve got more to show, and people go, ‘Oh, I get you now.’” When I ask about the opportunities for female filmmakers in general, however, she’s less optimistic: “I was doing a talk once and I pointed out that only 7% of [feature film] directors are women, which is the same as when cinema began. And someone came up to me afterwards and corrected me, saying, ‘Actually, at the beginning of cinema there were more women directors’ – so numbers show it’s not getting any easier.”

It's a depressing statistic. I suggest that the quality of British filmmakers who are female perhaps papers over some of the vast inequalities in the industry. “What I find quite fascinating in Britain is that if you look at Lynne Ramsay, Clio Barnard, Joanna Hogg, Andrea Arnold, they all write their own stuff: they are writer-directors. And if you think of the guys who have come up at the same time, somebody like Ben Wheatley or Michael Winterbottom, they don’t write [all of] their own films, but they’re still seen as auteurs. Of course they’re really involved and are brilliant, but [female filmmakers] don’t seem to get that opportunity. I can’t imagine directing something I haven’t written. And I think there’s probably a link as to why that is: I think it’s that we’re trying to generate stuff that we want to see. My feeling is that everyone wants more diverse stories. For that you want it so that you’ve all kinds of people making films.”

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The Falling is released 24 Apr by Metrodome