Carol Morley’s follow-up to her breakthrough hit Dreams of a Life tells the surreal story of a fainting pandemic that hit a English boarding school in 1969. The film is a take on familiar childhood demonic possession, but with a British kind of irony. The mass psychogenic illness mystery is genuine and convincing but left unresolved; the diagnosis of hysteria or the ‘wandering womb’ is unsatisfactory, if not ridiculous. This irony is demonstrated in no better scene than that which sees a passing cyclist heckle the group of huddled girls as ‘witches’ and then proceed to crash into a ditch.
The darkened dystopia is coloured by over-saturated soft-focus shots of girls strolling through the leafy Wordsworthian English countryside. Imagery is often superimposed on top of itself or distorted through the reflective surface of the lake as if the audience were also about to pass out. The phantasmagorical photography is so effective this world was seen as if the audience were looking up and out of a body of water, the composition of Millais’ Ophelia came to mind.
I was impressed by the casting; Maisie Williams (Lydia) was a strong lead for such a melodramatic film, working her spell on the audience with defiant unpredictability. The first time she fainted I felt her fall right out of the screen, although her twitching eye became quite irritating. But by no means did she steal the camera from any other actor. Strong performances came from those new to the screen, notably Florence Pugh. She plays Abbie, the sacrificial lamb taken to the slaughter for having lost her virginity in the backseat of a car. Abbie and Lydia’s intense female friendship is heartbreakingly beautiful, plunging the film into tragedy almost straight away.
At times the film felt more like physical theatre; the girls fainted like broken ballerinas seized by the presiding teenage angst and pscyho-sexual undertones of the film. There was something magnificently empowering about the girls’ rebellion against their parents and teachers, and, in fact, the repressed post-war generation of the fading 60s. The Maxine Peake fan I am, I admit I was disappointed with a lot of directing decisions to do with her character. Being familiar with her as the ruthless barrister of Silk or the gender-bending Prince of Denmark in Hamlet I thought the only time the role of weakened 1960s telly-addict-mother really suited her was the final scene when she got to leave the kitchen. The northern accent which has never been a problem in previous roles was replaced with some kind of Scottish-Welsh hybrid, and her difficulty with that was felt on screen.
That is the only minor criticism I have for this outstanding British drama. Although the film is beautiful and mesmerising, it is a difficult watch dealing with adolescent grief, knitting needle abortions, female sexual awakening and abandoned parents. There is something deeply personal about the film; its reflective surface lets you take from it what you will. It will continue to haunt me but I also feel compelled to watch it again. Morely is set to be a game changer and I look forward to whatever she does next.