After the heartbreaking true story ‘Dreams of a Life’ (2011), British writer-director Carol Morley shows startling versatility and ambition with this jawdropping mash-up of ‘If’ and ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ set in an all-girl grammar school circa 1969.
When one student’s fainting spells soon cause her classmates to drop like flies too, a staid Oxfordshire institution is enveloped in a miasma of seething hormones. The doctor calls it ‘hysterical contagion’, but are these powerful sensations genuine?
Surprisingly, there’s significant factual precedence for such bizarre events, and Morley’s lushly visualised film offers tantalising hints of mystery – ley lines? The spirit of the land? – while empathetically portraying everyday teen emotions leaping into the red zone. The instigator, sexually precocious Abigail (striking newcomer Florence Pugh), secretly has good reasons for collapsing in class, but her new-found ardour for the opposite sex profoundly unsettles her very best friend Lydia (‘Game of Thrones’ regular Maisie Williams), whose feelings of exclusion prompt her own increasingly dramatic blackouts.
Psychedelic fast-cut editing and Tracy Thorn’s pastoral soundtrack create an atmosphere of beguiling possibility, the orgasmic surge of teenage female neuroses threatening key authority figures (including stern teacher Greta Scacchi). At home, however, Williams’s burgeoning sense of empowerment has shocking consequences, as Morley explores the troubling nether regions of familial relationships. In so doing she ratchets up the intensity to such fever-pitch, she can’t quite get the story back under control again. Yet in every other respect this dizzying, courageous, utterly humane and slightly unhinged film is a unique achievement.