Reviewed by: Richard Mellor

"Naughty, nasty and lots of fun."

The cleverest thing about Jordan Scott’s debut feature film is that, after 15 minutes, you think you know where it’s going. There’s an inspiring teacher, an elite boarding school, a stuffy atmosphere and a cluster of precocious teens positively begging for a rite of passage or two. A 1930s version of Dead Poets Society, here we come.

Except we don’t. Scott, the niece of True Romance director Tony and here adapting Sheila Kohler’s 1999 novel, instead provides something quite different. Rather than Robin Williams and standing on tables, you get lesbian lust and the starkest of tragedies. It’s naughty, nasty and lots of fun.

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In hindsight, the gloomy green hills and icy waters around Cracks’ austere girls school – located on the fictional and craggily remote Stanley Island – do hint at the bruising drama to come. An early class reading of Ozymandias proves equally portentous, with its grim mention of “cold command” and “lifeless things”. Both descriptions suit the building’s broad, grey slabs, as well as Sinead Cusack’s joyless headmistress.

Not so Eva Green’s Miss G (as her subjects lovingly call the teacher), though. Her diving and trampoline classes make marvellous alternatives to desk-bound sessions, and a chain-smoking, fun-filled temperament ensures she shines amid the lank pallor of the landscape, and of her fellow staff. Encouraged by class bully and chief fan Di (Juno Temple), the impressionable girls – all with ironically botanical British names like Poppy and Laurel – understandably dote on this thrilling figure.

That begins to change the moment Fiamma (María Valverde), a Spanish princess of impossible beauty, poise and pluck, not to mention Penelope Cruz’s eyes, arrives at the school. A worldlier child, she soon sees through Miss G’s tall travelling tales, as well as the teacher’s peculiar need for fanfare. It quickly transpires that Green’s cocksure class personality masks a paralysing fear of the world outside, where she struggles to so much as buy groceries.

Once Fiamma has Miss G’s number, an engrossing three-way butting of psychological horns unravels. Di hates Fiamma because she in turns dislikes Miss G; the mesmerised teacher develops a crush on her exotic new Iberian pupil, and consequently devotes less time to Di; Fiamma tries to show Di the truth about their iconoclastic teacher, while ignoring Miss G’s advances. We learn all this by entering a world of midnight feasts and private staff meetings, of dormitory skirmishes and lingering stares during recitals of All Things Bright And Beautiful.

The excitement of these clashes is aided by some fine performances. Those sarcastic, yet vulnerable eyes working full tilt, Green gradually allows her teacher’s lustrous charm to pare away, and reveal the ugliness inside. There’s far less disguise to Di, however – Temple’s face boils with jealous anger in a brutally stiff-lipped performance. It’s hard to know who’s more dangerous to the fragile Fiamma – the woman scorned or the woman spurned.

As we wait to find out, Cracks becomes a genuine potboiler. At times the pot boils too slowly, though – the pace is about as languid, in fact, as John Mathieson’s evocative shots of the girls performing Olympic gold-standard dives off a lonely pier house. Some sequences – such as Fiamma’s eviction at the hands of Di, and return by a symbolic ferryman – feel like they are delaying, rather than enhancing, the plot (or pot).

Regardless, Scott ratchets up the tension nicely As days darken and bathing hats are scraped mercilessly over foreheads, so violence never seems far afield. In this most cloistered of arenas, one thing at least is predictable: that there will be no happy ending here. The good news is that the eventual crescendo is neither melodramatic nor maudlin. It’s also not – of course – what you might expect.

Reviewed on: 04 Dec 2009
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A tale of misguided love and obssession in an isolated girls' school in the Thirties.
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Jennie Kermode *****

Director: Jordan Scott

Writer: Ben Court and Caroline Ip, based on the book by Sheila Kohler.

Starring: Eva Green, Juno Temple, María Valverde, Imogen Poots, Ellie Nunn, Adele McCann, Zoe Carroll, Clemmie Dugdale, Sinéad Cusack, Laurence Richardson, Vanessa Lunnon, Gerry Shanahan, Kitty McLaughlin-Dunning, Judy Donovan

Year: 2009

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, Ireland


London 2009

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