The Falling is not one of those easy viewing, Sunday afternoon flicks that its director Carol Morley dubs ‘popcorn movies’. Instead, it is a haunting piece that has occupied a space in my consciousness for quite some time. I first came across the film back in October 2014 at Screen Stockport, an annual short film festival at which Morley sat on stage answering questions about the film and her career. This sparked a close interest in all of Morley’s work. She is a director who has shot into the limelight recently with The Falling, but her oeuvre contains an array of independently minded and made shorts and docu-dramas that I have loved researching.

In part, I have the wonderful Seven Miles Out arts café in Stockport to thank for that. Screening Morley’s intense feature film, Dreams of a Life, and the autobiographical The Alcohol Years, Seven Miles Out was the perfect setting to plunge into this unique director’s cinematic psyche.

Morley consistently challenges her audience’s expectations, and this is what I love. It is her personal life, as much as her professional output, that intrigues and beguiles as she puts so much of herself into her films. This manifests itself most literally in her self-exploration behind the lens in The Alcohol Years, as she revisits old Mancunian acquaintances from her reckless youth. It also comes across in the affinity with the protagonist in Dreams of a Life, Joyce. Here we sense Morley’s connection with a woman who seemingly had it all, yet died in her flat and was left there undisturbed for three years near to one of the busiest shopping districts in London. It is this exploration of hidden lives, and particularly of strong female minds that seem to be common threads in all of Morley’s work.

Feminine mystique’ is a theory that is constantly reiterated in culmination with this exploration. Morley’s committed research of mass psychogenic illnesses that went into the story of The Falling perfectly exhibits this. In interviews, Morley has stated that mass hysteria was most common in all-female institutions due to the way symptoms of psychosis were discussed by individuals and then ‘spread’ across the group. It is also clear that a major stimulus was the troubled home lives of individuals. Here, protagonist Lydia Lamont (Maisie Williams) goes through losing her best friend Abbey Mortimer (Frances Pugh) and has to deal with an agoraphobic mother (Maxine Peake) who doesn’t want to engage with her at all.

The Falling is a film that plays on our conceptions of hysteria and femininity to create a subverted, womblike space that is dark and strange instead of comforting. Why make another ‘comfort food film’ where women’s mental health issues are sidelined? Morley’s strong female cast remain centre stage and are beautifully married to Tracy Thorn’s melodic score, an artist who Morley dreamt had played the film’s music before asking her to create it. In fact, the whole sound is composed on the instruments from The Alternative School Orchestra that Abbey sets up, which gives the sound an extra ethereal dimension. Thorn’s original music also serves to defamiliarise the 60s milieu. Where a lot of films rely on well-known tunes from the era they are set in, Thorn’s dulcet tones instead draw us into the strange space of hysteria in a more subtle way.

The film portrays sexual awakening in a setting where British women are only just being allowed to express themselves. Set in 1969, it makes reference to the recent legalisation of abortions, and contains implicit images of the ways female sexuality can be open to use and abuse at the hands of society. Through wonderfully crafted montage editing and flashback sequences, the film whispers but never quite tells, shows but never fully reveals.

Morley herself laughs about the irony of the film being set in the year when man landed on the moon, in contrast with the reserved attitude of Lydia’s mother, who is afraid to even go outside. As with all of Morley’s work, she draws a constant dichotomy between what is presented to us in the media, and what is experienced in normal society. The film forces us to acknowledge taboos that ring true of any generation and era. This is why The Falling still packs a proverbial punch. It is spine tingling and will not let you look away.

The etymology of the term ‘orgasm’ – ‘a small death’ – which is divulged by Abbey in an intimate scene with Lydia seems a peculiarly apt analogy for the viewer when watching this film. It seems to describe how it is essential to let preconceptions and over-analysing die. Lingering shots and intense fainting sequences demand a lot more from the viewer than first meets the eye. Just as with Carol’s intensely personal and often painful stare into her own soul in The Alcohol Years, we are faced with many uncomfortable issues in all of Morley’s work that force us to self-analyse as well as interpret what’s in front of us. My own experience of these films is that each group of people watching them will have something new to say on how it made them feel and it is an essential, cathartic experience to discuss with friends afterwards.

It has been an intense pleasure to watch and re-watch Morley’s latest exploit and try to come to terms with it. Hopefully The Falling marks the start of a new chapter in Morley’s career, and I for one cannot wait to see what is next.

@_CarolMorley

Elspeth Vischer