Like the schoolgirls it so prominently displays, Cracks is moody, rebellious, fixated on its appearance, and torn between affection and spitefulness – mostly the latter. This is such an unpleasant movie, and I’m honestly at a loss to speculate on why it was written or which audience is likely to find it appealing. The characters are ugly and venomous. The plot is as slow, predictable, and overwrought as a Victorian gothic novel. It touches on issues such as student/teacher homoeroticism and molestation, but not in a mature or compelling way; everything that happens in this film is for the sake of creating as much drama as humanly possible. Just about the only thing it gets right is its atmosphere, which, true to form, comes across in the cinematography, the costumes, the music, and the art direction.
The film, adapted from the novel by Sheila Kohler, marks the feature-length directorial debut of Jordan Scott, daughter of Ridley and niece of Tony. This isn’t a matter of talent skipping a generation, since both dad and uncle have made their share of bad movies (the last good one to Ridley’s name was American Gangster). I am curious, though, why she chose this particular story to introduce herself with; without taking heed of genuine drama or entertainment, the film is unremittingly depressing, as if the purpose was to make audiences feel worthless. What does she hope to achieve by treating them in this fashion? Her next film better be a masterpiece, for it’s going to take a lot to undo the damage this movie will inevitably cause.
It takes place in the mid 1930s at an all-girls boarding school, which is located on an island off the coast of England. It’s an institution founded on regiment and religion – which, of course, is a double whammy, since this gives the main characters ample opportunity to break the rules. They’re a bossy and mean-spirited clique of girls who are part of a swimming team, and yet they have never once competed. They look up to their instructor, who they have nicknamed Miss G (Eva Green); she’s one of those mysterious women that encourage passion and determination, and her conduct is often looked down on by the rest of the staff, a gaggle of matronly stereotypes. She often tells stories about the places she has traveled – long winded, detailed stories that sound more like passages from a Joseph Conrad novel. She plays favorites when it comes to the ringleader of the girls, Di Radfield (Juno Temple); the opening scene shows them alone in a boat as they read, smoke, and relax.
Into their lives enters a new student: Fiamma Coronna (María Valverde), an asthmatic aristocrat from Spain. Not only is she very beautiful, she has also seen the world. Di, jealous and manipulative, is forced to compete, not just for dominance over her friends, but also for her status on the swimming team and the affections of Miss G, who sinks deeper into obsession with every passing scene. Fiamma eventually winds up passed out drunk, her one successful attempt at reaching out to the other girls resulting in a midnight drinking ceremony; Miss G, who Fiamma sees as nothing but a liar and a hypocrite, hides her in a downstairs dorm, away from the faculty. What should Miss G do now that she has a blossoming teenage girl lying unconscious on her couch, especially since her nightgown is laced ever so loosely? How will Di react when she sneaks downstairs and peaks through the door, which is ajar?
Uncomfortable subject matter has been the backbone of some of our greatest dramas (and even a few comedies), so let it not be said that I object to Cracks simply for including molestation. What I do object to is the way molestation is depicted; in her decision to film an erotic scene – complete with high camera angles, soft lighting, and vivid scenery – Scott is essentially dismissing the true nature of Miss G’s actions. She handles it as most directors would handle a love affair between two consenting adults. We’re talking about a grown woman taking advantage of a drunken teenage girl. Any reasonable, well-adjusted audience member should know that there is nothing innately erotic about this.
This emotional weightiness leaves the film hanging by a thread. The ending is the proverbial straw that forces it to snap in two and bring the whole thing crashing down; it’s a scene so overwrought and depressing that it surpasses drama and becomes a form of psychological abuse. Nothing is gained from the experience, apart from a profound sense of emptiness. Is that what Scott was aiming for? To sadden all those who see it? Surely it isn’t to entertain, since that would require the drama to have a purpose. The sets look great, the lighting and costumes are evocative, and the performances are decent – but it’s all to no end. Cracks is the kind of film that knows exactly how it wants to look, but has absolutely no idea how to connect to an audience.