Jordan Scott’s impeccably photographed first feature is a “Picnic at Hanging Rock” for rationalists. There is no supernatural inclination in Scott’s handling of the events leading to the disappearance of a new arrival to the swim team at a British boarding school, yet her evasive approach to the material lends a coolly mysterious air to the proceedings. Her screenplay, co-written with Ben Court and Caroline Ip, discards the flashback structure of Sheila Kohler’s novel, placing the principal action of the story within the duration of Spanish princess Fiamma’s (Maria Valverde) stay. Fiamma enters and departs in a mist of schoolgirl sensuality, naturally moving from adolescence into womanhood, while the other girls dutifully climb the ladder to the diving board where their attempts at flight are confounded by the lack of physical self-knowledge. Lording over this time-frozen domain is Miss G (Eva Green), herself as much a prisoner to the school as her charges. Until Fiamma’s arrival, Miss G has made do with swim-team Captain Di (Juno Temple) as her protégé, who she abandons at the first glimpse of the more promising Fiamma. The resultant jealousies lead to the actions that end in ambiguous, yet irrefutable, tragedy.
Set in the fictional St Mathilda’s School on the equally fictional Stanley Island off England’s coast in the year 1934, “Cracks” is buttressed by Scott’s turbulent yet architectural imagination. In spite of references to the wealth of the children’s parents, the school has the aspect of an oppressive holding tank for orphans, run by stern and wrinkled matrons, where the only breathing space is afforded by the lake where the swim team practices for competitions that will never happen, frozen as they are in the circumstance of Fiamma’s sojourn among them, At first, it seems the pasts of all the characters, including those of Fiamma and Miss G, are invented, that nothing has ever existed outside of St. Mathilda’s School in 1934. A scene in which an older matron forces Miss G to look at an old picture of herself among former schoolmates recalls Jack Torrance’s history with the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining.”
In another film, Fiamma might truly have been a Spanish princess and Miss G a sophisticated woman of the world, but here they have neither past nor future. Perhaps the whole movie is Miss G’s nightmare, from which none of the girls can escape, being figures in another person’s dream, Scott teases us with such speculations, all the while building an edifice of rational explanation for events that seem to have only a purgatorial existence.
Still the film is rife with contradictions and ambiguity. For example the school is specifically non-Catholic, yet is named after a Catholic saint and employs a father confessor. Fiamma is introduced as having come from Spain to join this swim team, yet it is doubtful word of their existence would have reached her, especially considering that they had never competed. Discounting this, it would seem irresponsible of her parents to banish her to this cold, Norfolk coast to swim in an icy sea when she suffers from a severe asthmatic condition that is triggered by both exercise and the cold.
Scott handles such material with the delicacy of the wind, neither ignoring nor attempting to resolve its contradictions. Her apparently naïve approach to point of view is essential to keeping the viewer outside the head of its emergent protagonist. Sense of place careens drastically from oppressive, rule-dominated interiors to the siren freedom of shimmering moonlight swims. This panoply of place and perspective is validated by Scott’s refusal to accept or deny the relative truth or falsehood of any given action or statement.
“Cracks” easily overcomes the stigma of being directed by the daughter and niece of prestigious directors Ridley and Tony Scott, as it is clearly the work of a talent superior to their own. In addition to having an exquisite eye, Scott is exact in her direction of actors, getting perfect performances from everyone in her cast. Her use of music is also masterful, never putting it to the cheap function of reinforcing intended emotional effects, but applying it lightly to add resonance to already established moods. Unlike her forebears, who settled into mediocrity after impressive starts with the visual flash of their early work, Jordan Scott makes a quietly elegant debut that, like garden perennials, has the lasting qualities of a talent that can be relied upon to blossom more luxuriously with each coming year.