By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 25, 2011)
Whilst perusing the press kit synopsis of Jordan (daughter of Ridley) Scott’s directorial debut, Cracks, I confess I got my feathers ruffled over the fact that it trumpeted “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie meets Lord of the Flies!” Ahem, I thought to myself, that’s my job to come up with clever “(blank) meets (blank)” references. How dare you usurp the mighty film critic, I continued raging, like the petulant man-child that I am. So I defiantly dredged up my own mashups: Picnic at Hanging Rock meets The Children’s Hour! Heavenly Creatures meets The Fallen Idol! You want esoteric? Try The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea meets Death in Venice…top that one, bee-YATCHes!!
I digress. As you may have gleaned, Scott’s film is the latest entry in a time-honored film genre: The Boarding School Drama. Set in the 1930s, with Irish locations standing in for an English coastal island, this particular institution is an elite girl’s school. As we’ve learned from watching such tales, there’s a caste system, with a ruling clique at the top of the pyramid. This one is led by a haughty young miss named Di (Juno Temple), who publicly admonishes her peeps for such high crimes as insufficiently buttering her toast for her at breakfast; after which she magnanimously assuages the humiliated underling with a tough love caveat: “We must set the standard for the others.”
However, there is a cosmology from upon high to which Di defers for “the standard” and guidance, which is handed down by the Unconventional Yet Inspirational Teacher of the piece. She is the enigmatically named Miss G (Eva Green). Di and her hand-picked inner circle share a mutual admiration society with the free-spirited Miss G, who captivates her charges with affected worldly poise and romanticized tales of wanderlust.
She has also chosen them for her exclusive “diving team”, appointing Di as the captain. In return, Miss G gets to bask in adulation and feed (in somewhat vampiric fashion) off of their youthful exuberance. “What is the most important thing in life?” she challenges them, firing them up for dive practice “Desire!” (more on that in a sec).
Everything goes swimmingly for Miss G. and her frolicking water nymphs until the arrival of a new girl throws a Spaniard in the works. Her name is Fiamma (Maria Valverde), and she hails from an aristocratic Spanish family. The headmistress puts the new girl under Miss G’s tutelage, instructing her to make Fiamma feel welcome, but with no special deference. Di wastes little time making Fiamma feel “welcome” by informing her in no uncertain terms that she is “allowed” but five personal decorative objects on her nightstand.
There is no tantrum, no tears (the kind of reaction that bullies really hate). In fact, Fiamma vibes a sophistication and maturity beyond the ken of the other girls; and when she recognizes one of Miss G’s “personal” anecdotes to be rote memorization from a published work, it is clear that the group dynamic is about to change. The divine Miss G, it would seem, has feet of clay-but don’t think that she will readily give up her stature.
The director co-adapted her screenplay with Ben Court and Caroline Ip from a novel by Shelia Kohler. I have not read the source book, but the author’s website reveals that one of her recurring themes is to dissect “…the reasons for violence within intimate relationships, in particular, the abuse of power and privilege.”
I can see that in the film; particularly through the character of Miss G.. Green is edgy and effective in the role, particularly in the way she keeps the psycho-sexual Sapphic undercurrents roiling below the surface, poised to explode at any moment (Blanche Dubois as a life coach). This is a promising debut for Scott; if her direction falters, it’s in the film’s pacing; this feels akin to a Masterpiece Theater presentation. Still, I would recommend it for the performances and absorbing story…so you could say I’m willing to grade it on a curve.