Terrific, beguiling mystery – seek it out!
Totally beguiling and awash with repressed tension just waiting to boil over, Carol Morley (Dreams of a Life)’s alluring psychological drama concerns a wave of mysterious faintings that occur in a girls’ school. What’s causing them? Psychosomaticism? The supernatural? Set in a town where the Swinging Sixties was clearly something that happened to other people, best friends Abbie (Florence Pugh, spellbinding) and Lydia (Maisie Williams, Arya from Game of Thrones, equally strong here) are two of the pupils this mysterious affliction happens to, but beyond these happenings, there’s the matter of Lydia’s wilfully housebound mother (Maxine Peake, rocking the beehive) and lothario brother Kenneth (not ‘Ken’), played by Joe Cole, the latter clearly attracted to Abbie, who’s recently discovered she’s become pregnant by another man. Her predicament paves the way to the fainting spells which overcome the pupils – what could be causing them, and why? Emotional oppression? Intensified puberty? Is it a genuine illness? Is it all attention-seeking fraudulence? There’s even a theory involving ley lines offered at one stage. The teachers try to sweep all of this under the carpet but it becomes impossible to ignore, and Lydia soon becomes the most intensely affected victim in all of this.
There’s an atmosphere of unease which partly recalls Peter Weir’s surreal Picnic at Hanging Rock, especially in the character of Abbie, who like Picnic‘s Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), has a presence that’s deeply felt even when she’s not on screen. There’s also a touch of Ken Russell’s The Devils in its depiction of how authority deals with what it considers dangerous, unshackled femininity. The real reason behind the faintings is somewhat vague – intentionally so. You can read into them however you want – even when answers do become apparent, it’s no clear cut solution. The chemistry between the girls is palpable and convincing– friendly, but definitely with an air of uncertainty and paranoia. Morley’s handling of atmosphere is gorgeous – rainy days and autumnal melancholy make this as pleasurable as the hearing the sound of quiet storms from the comfort of indoors. There’s a love of nature which made me want to touch the screen, so beautifully captured are the outdoor scenes. There are also some disquietingly intimate moments between Lydia and Kenneth, sexually transgressive and crackling with uneasy tension.
Pugh, in her debut performance, exudes a beautiful, untenable air that’s utterly hypnotic. The camera loves her. Williams, along with her one-man show performance in TV’s Cyberbully, proves she’s capable of even more than her excellent, wounded, feisty Arya Stark with a turn that naturally plays second fiddle to Pugh’s centre-stage presence to begin with but soon becomes something all of its own as the film progresses. Supporting performances, especially from Greta Scaachi and Monica Dolan, are exquisitely stern (with cracks in their facades all too apparent).
I’m sure there were a few walk-outs during the screening I attended – I suppose its subtle eeriness is not for those who want something a little more easily graspable, but this is the kind of dreamy, mysterious cinema I absolutely adore. Sensuous, poetic and musical, it has a gently shivering quality all of its own.
PS: Director Carol Morley is the sister of music writer Paul Morley.
PSS: There’s a good drinking game to be had regarding the number of times Monica Dolan’s character lights up a cigarette.
PSSS: The soundtrack is by Tracey Thorn of Everything But the Girl.