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film_crackssSchoolgirls go wild in skillful, but implausible psycho-thriller ‘Cracks’

Hot on the muddy, moor-encrusted boots of Jane Eyre comes a new film about English boarding school girls from a potentially bright new talent. Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley, niece of Tony) makes an assured and skillful feature film debut with Cracks, a psychological melodrama of illusion, identity, festering passions, and emotional mayhem-most-British at a staid girls boarding school in the English countryside.

Scott co-wrote the script with Ben Court and Caroline Ip, adapted from the controversial, experimental 2000 novel by Sheila Kohler. With its impressive production values, and scrupulously maintained period ambience (ca. 1934), this is a compelling mood piece that draws the viewer into the peculiar, hothouse sensibility of females cloistered away together deep in the country.

Scott’s set-up of the story is smart and polished in every respect as she probes into her characters’ alliances, obsessions, shifting loyalties and fragile facades.

Unfortunately, the payoff of the plot never makes credible sense. This may be the fault of the source material, but it’s still up to the filmmaker to create an atmosphere of plausibility within the context of her film that Scott never quite manages.

The story revolves around a clutch of older adolescent girls (perhaps 14 or 15) at an unnamed school in a drafty lakeside country manor house. Pinch-mouthed, imperious Di Radfield (Juno Temple) is their leader; her job is to torture and humiliate underclasswomen and demand obeisance from her girl gang of classmates. The girls follow Di’s lead in all things, and, like her, they are all in thrall to their favorite teacher, Miss G (Eva Green).

In contrast to the rest of the whey-faced matrons in frumpy dresses who run the school, Miss G, the gym teacher, is a bolt of vitality. Young and vibrant, she cultivates a scandalous image—loaning banned books to her favorites, like Di, bending rules to herd the girls outside for a midnight swim, filling  their heads with tales of her romantic adventures—a notoriety she wears like one of her jaunty berets. “The most important thing in life,” she coaches them, “is desire!”

But their cozy status quo is plunged into turmoil with the arrival of new student, Fiamma (Maria Valverde), a Spanish aristocrat, it’s rumored she’s been sent away to break off her attachment to a young man. Di is prepared to loathe her, especially when Fiamma refuses to bow to Di’s petty authority, but as Fiamma proves to be the best diver on their diving team, the other girls begin to accept her. What’s less forgivable, especially to Di, is the unexpected effect that the worldly, private, self-possessed Fiamma starts to have on Miss G. Although, at first, the gym teacher baits and challenges the newcomer as ruthlessly as the other girls, the deepening murk and complexity of their relationship—and its effect on the other girls—propels the rest of the story.

Suffice it to say that a predatory and unwholesome obsession develops, although it may not be the one you expect. Meanwhile, filmmaker Scott proves adept at compiling small moments that reveal much about her characters—a stray remark, a glimpse of a letter or postcard, or a surprising, alternative view of dashing Miss G on an errand into the local village. (Stripping down to the essential truth about Miss G is especially well done, as the film progresses.)

But as well as Scott maintains her tone, and explores the threads of jealousy, attempted rapprochement, and revenge that drive her characters’ lives, she can’t make the story’s climax credible. In Heavenly Creatures (a film Cracks vaguely resembles in period and mood), horror erupts out of two girls’ extreme folie à deux; in Lord of the Flies, the unsupervised boys on a desert island devolve to savagery. But here, when something horrific happens among girls in uniform on film_cracksschool grounds (without the slightest qualm of protest), it’s much less convincing. It feels dishonest and lacks the weight of tragic inevitability, a disappointing finale that cheapens the very accomplished and intriguing storytelling that has gone before.

CRACKS

★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>

With Juno Temple, Eva Mendes, and Maria Valverde.  Written by Ben Court, Caroline Ip and Jordan Scott. From the novel by Sheila Kohler. Directed by Jordan Scott. An IFC release.

Rated PG-13. 104 minutes.

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