Then I Saw Your Smile

Laura Morgan is Falling for you.

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Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams as Abbie and Lydia

I wrote briefly about The Falling after seeing it at last year’s London Film Festival, in a swirl of emotion, exhaustion and excessive film viewing, and I wondered whether I would feel differently about it six months on. In fact, I don’t at all: this is still a smart, sweet, comic, romantic, despairing film about teenage girls who are themselves all of those things.

Maisie Williams, better known as Arya Stark in Game Of Thrones, has been getting all the publicity in the run-up to the film’s release, and it’s true that she is terrific here, but the beating heart of the film is the friendship between her character, Lydia, and Florence Pugh’s Abbie, in a performance which should see newcomer Pugh flying to giddy heights anytime now.

The story is set in an all-girls’ school in the 1960s and weaves itself around an episode of mass psychogenic illness, which manifests in a fainting epidemic. There’s a dry, restrained and very British wit running through the school’s attempts to deal with this, but all the power in the film comes from, and resides in, the girls themselves. Only a director like Carol Morley, with her combination of down-to-earth grittiness and a fairytale imagination, could capture the joy and pain of being a teenage girl; the comedy and the tragedy of teenage friendships; the endlessly subtle nuances that indicate where on the scale a precarious alliance teeters at any given moment.

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“Anything for you, Khaleesi.”

Morley’s last film, Dreams Of A Life, told the true story of Joyce Vincent, a young woman who died alone in her North London flat and wasn’t found until three years later. I haven’t had to go back and check any of those details: they are seared into my memory as clearly as if I had known Joyce myself, because Carol Morley’s telling of her story made me feel that I did. Badly-done docudrama can be horribly awkward (Crimewatch sometimes springs to mind, unbidden), and Joyce’s story wasn’t an obvious candidate for a reconstruction – after all, nobody knows what she was doing or where she was in the period leading to her death – but Morley and her lead, Zawe Ashton, brought a lightness of touch and a humane sensibility that comes not from expert acting or film-making, but from a genuine insight and a genuine feeling that can’t be faked.

What she brought to a true story in that film, Morley brings to a story of her own devising here, and it’s just as convincing, just as memorable and just as life-affirming. The interweaving of stories – of mundane detail, of human-scale tragedy in the shape of Lydia’s miserable housebound mother, played by Maxine Peake, with a lush, dreamlike fantasy that goes beyond quotidien adult boundaries and dances at the edge of every teenage consciousness – is done beautifully, and by a cast and crew who, one feels, are bringing it all from experience, from their own relationships and internal lives. The crew, incidentally, was as female-heavy as the cast, and watching them interact in various interviews and on Twitter you can’t help feeling they had about as much fun offscreen as their characters did on it (and sometimes more; I’m lightly skating over the tougher aspects of the plot here, because they’re not what the film is about).

Do you remember those childhood summers, when every day was filled with light? Maybe you played in the garden or out on the street (or next to the railway line, if you lived where I did). Maybe you were sporty, maybe you rode a bike, maybe you lived by the seaside and played on the beach. Maybe, like me, the sunny days are the only ones you remember; the grey ones, the miserable ones, the ones spent doing maths homework, relegated to an unvisited lumber-room somewhere at the back of your mind. If so, you’ll enjoy The Falling just as much as I did, because it comes to life in a series of those golden moments, the ones you always remember. And this is a golden film, dripping in sunlight and pollen and mayflies and bare legs covered in scratches. It’s beautiful the way oil in a puddle or the steam from a mug of hot chocolate is: nostalgically, naively, painfully. April is the perfect time to release a film so evocative of English summers gone by and it deserves the big screen, just as Tracey Thorn’s stunning soundtrack deserves surround sound, so if you’re stuck with a few hours to spare this weekend, go to the pictures, and take your best girlfriends with you.

The Falling is on general release from today.

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