The film's title, Cracks, is problematical for several reasons. First on, it sounds like a grade B horror pic, which it is not. After viewing, I concluded that the title merely indicated "cracks" in the sanity of some of the film's characters -- but a crack is a slang term in the original South African (where the novel was set) vernacular. It frankly is what we call here a "girl-crush." Perhaps it is a double entendre, but with author Sheila Kohler's original location being transported to the UK in the film, there is little chance of the title making real sense unless you read the book -- something I plan on doing soon, even if my damned Kindle does not consider it as important as say, Chelsea, Chelsea Bang Bang...
Although I loved this movie, that does not mean you will, so I hope I steer the right folks in its direction. Take a dash of The Children's Hour, a whole lot of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, some Lord of the Flies (a film and book that are too painful for me to bear) with even a bit of The Trouble With Angels -- and first time director Jordon Scott begets a film that stands on its own as an original -- or a clever homage. Having not yet read the novel by Sheila Kohler, I can't say who was responsible, although Ms. Kohler did participate in this movie directly.
Cracks is set in the early 1930s -- almost entirely in a girl's boarding school -- chock full of the erotic and mildly sadistic overtones one can anticipate in such a setting. A new student's arrival creates an imbalance between the "team" of girls that she is dorming with. The girl Fiamma, (Maria Valverde) a Spanish aristocrat, is obviously in some sort of exile. Although elegant and a bit mysterious, she is not snobbish. She also proves to be a graceful diver -- and since the "team" of girls is also a swimming team, she becomes the object of envy and adoration. The wild card here is the girl's teacher, Miss G. In this type of piece a teacher can turn against a student out of envy, but in this case the beautiful and stylish Miss G. (Eva Green) admires the girl and attempts to win her loyalty. Fiamma, chafing from the teacher's attention -- realizing that it is further alienating the girls from her, does not reciprocate the teacher's special attention. Di, (Juno Temple) the teacher's former favorite is dangerously jealous, but her relationship with Fiamma has some humane touches that enrich this movie -- and make it more complex than the typical girl vs. girl type of affair.
Miss. G, you see, is not what she seems. Making her entrance like a saucy and sophisticated flapper she is perfectly coiffed and made up until her slow disintegration of self. Kudos is deserved for the modern way any pathology is finally revealed. These bits of details make what could have been just a guilty pleasure an interesting study. I could not take my eyes of her for the entire film.
The similarity with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is not merely the obvious girls' school settings and its inevitable power plays. Or the erotic motivations. The similarity between Miss G. and Jean Brodie is both teachers' verbal and emotional grandiosity as they rhapsodize regarding "greatness" and the necessary achievement of it. They convey that each girl has the potential and duty to be a goddess. There is no mention of human frailty. Is the author condemning the exultation of human potential? Is the theme a lecture against being elitist? One might think so upon careful examination of the reason for Fiamma's expulsion from Spain, but I will not give it away. Think about it. To the viewers who complain that the story has been told before I answer them with Sondheim's lyrics ("Move On") -- "Stop worrying if your vision is new! Let others make that decision, they usually do!" My decision was that this piece is worthy as art, even if I might take umbrage with its ultimate political message.
Although I was engrossed by the plot and theme of the movie, there is much more than that going on. Ms. Scott's mesmerizing direction is tingling and hypnotic. She literally brings things to life (watch the flowers blooming). The music, pulsating throughout (like a tone poem) and the voluptuous costuming render Cracks complexly delectable.
This movie is sure to polarize. The politically correct may tut-tut the portrayal of the woman as unstable and the conservatives might think it too naughty. As is their perogative. Some folks might think it overheated. Well the heat took hold of me from the beginning and never let me cool off. This might seem to be a "woman's picture," but there is plenty for men to look at, especially during the Rhinemaiden-esqe nude swimming scenes. In essence, this movie has it all as far as I am concerned -- gorgeous women, the raising of intellectual and artistic questions, concluding with a delicious and satisfying Grand Guignol finale.
Cracks opens in New York on at 3/18 at the IFC Theater at I323 Sixth Avenue at W. Third St.