There’s a neat symmetry to the fact the Carol Morley’s new film The Falling is officially the first film to show at Manchester’s spanking-new arts venue, HOME.
The Hacienda itself, of course, is now long since gone. Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul, Carol Morley says: “I still feel, in some part of my head, that the Hacienda exists, so I’ve never let it go. I still think that people are going there and Tony Wilson’s still having fun, looking down at everyone partying in this incredibly 2000-or-whatever-it-was capacity disco he’d created in that part of town. I can’t imagine that it’s become luxury flats. But I think HOME seems very exciting. It looks it’s going to be a great destination for theatre and film and everything.”
Morley’s family home was in Stockport, and growing up seven miles out of Manchester has informed her forthcoming debut novel, the semi-autobiographical 7 Miles Out, which is due to be published in September by Blink. It’s told mostly from the perspective of a Mancunian teenager, Ann, who’s coming to terms with her father’s suicide. As such it draws on Morley’s own dark experiences: indeed, the writer and critic Paul Morley, Carol’s older brother, tackled the self-same paternal loss in his 2000 book Nothing.
For Morley, writing her novel overlapped with making of The Falling, and they inform each other to some degree.
“I’m very interested in looking at female subjectivity in different ways, looking at what girlhood is and what growing up as a young woman means. The Alcohol Years looked at that and so does 7 Miles Out. I think The Falling was kind of about me wanting to go back in time even further and look at teenagers in the 60s, where they didn’t have mobile phones or technology and you could really get to the heart of the emotions. People of that age being on the cusp of discovery – I found all that very exciting to look at.”
Just as The Falling is more openly fictional than 7 Miles Out, it also contrasts with the factual bent of much of Morley’s previous film work – for instance, her acclaimed 2011 feature Dreams of a Life, about the travails and lonely death of Joyce Carol Vincent, took the form of a drama-documentary.
“I think it’s really exciting to be totally fictional, because when you do anything to do with documentary or semi-autobiography, drawing from real events and real people, I think you always feel quite a responsibility towards the truth, to those real people and to representing them. So to develop something entirely fictional like The Falling was very freeing, although you do want to make sure there’s authenticity to it.”
Set in a girls’ school in England in 1969, The Falling hinges on the intense friendship between two pupils, Lydia (Maisie Williams) and Abbie (Florence Pugh). By a turn of events, this intensity starts to grip the whole school community, and manifests itself in the form of an epidemic of fainting fits.
“They’ve happened since medieval times and they still happen, mostly in same-sex institutions, so it could be an army barracks, or a nunnery,” says Morley. “But most often the reported cases are in schools and I think it’s very highly concentrated in females. They’re often to do with different anxieties of the time. Nowadays they might be a reaction to people thinking they’ve eaten something toxic in their food, or maybe something to do with terrorism. In the 60s, the cases of mass hysteria that I looked up seemed to be around sexual anxiety and about the changing values of sexuality.”
Despite the true-life basis of the phenomenon, Morley was always set on telling the story as fiction.
“I wanted to get inside what it felt like and dramatise it, so for me it was never an option to do a documentary, or to find people who’d been involved and experienced it at some point. I thought maybe that would become too episodic. I really wanted to create a very mysterious but very beautiful film that celebrated teenage girls and demonstrated their emotions through mass psychogenic illness.”
Morley says that she wasn’t even particularly looking for a fiction project at the time. “I don’t really work like that. I think stories just come to me and I get passionately behind them, and then I work out the best way to tell them, really. For Dreams of a Life, it felt very natural that it should be a kind of drama-meets-documentary, but to have a large part of documentary component as part of it. But with The Falling, I just felt that it had to be told in a way that was dramatised. It just felt right.”
The film has been garnering some glowing reviews, some of which have detected a kinship with another tale of mysterious goings-on at a girls’ school, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Morley admits that these parallels are intentional. “It’s a film that I absolutely love, and when I was writing the script I was definitely very aware of the use of nature in Picnic at Hanging Rock and how powerful it was. I really love the mystery of that film. It’s so powerful, and its use of sound is brilliant as well. It was definitely a film that’s inspired me. There’s actually a few little references to it in The Falling, like the umbrellas which replicate the parasols that they have in Picnic. Also, Florence Pugh’s character Abbie wears her hair in the same way as [Hanging Rock character] Miranda. So there are these little fun connections.”
Another film which seems to have fed into The Falling is Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures.
“Yeah, definitely. I found that film very, very interesting, and of course that’s based on a true story and has an intense friendship between the two girls in it. I was definitely aware of that. I was also very aware of things like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, especially the TV version with Geraldine McEwan; Lindsay Anderson’s If…, set in a boarding school where they all rise up against authority, The Devils by Ken Russell… They were all kind of inspirations in one way or another.”
The cast includes a rich array of acting talent, from Greta Scacchi and Monica Dolan as teachers at the school, to Maxine Peake as Lydia’s anxiety-ridden mother Eileen. In particular, Morley has taken to describing Peake as her muse, and they’ve spoken of plans to make a film together in Manchester someday. Morley’s next film project, though, said to be an adaptation of a major British novel, is currently being kept under wraps prior to a major announcement at the Cannes festival next month.
Actually, it’s unusual to find phrases like ‘veil of secrecy’ applied to Morley and her work, not least because The Alcohol Years was so very candid about her troubled youth. But this doesn’t seem to something that she’s come to regret.
“Oh God, no! I think making The Alcohol Years gave me permission, in a way, to do as I felt. If you’re going to look at other peoples’ lives, you should also be prepared to look at your own.”
By Andy Murray
The Falling is now on general release