Whether in literature or film, the boarding-school setting tends to lend itself to one of a handful of possible narratives: student rebellion against authority (Zéro de Conduite, If…), the inspirational teacher who inspires cult-like devotion (Dead Poet’s Society, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), gay repression and abuse (The Confusions of Young Törless). Cracks seems to want to encompass them all. Jordan Scott’s uneven, if intermittently compelling film, based on a novel by Sheila Kohler, revolves around Miss G (Eva Green), the charismatic young teacher of a remote English all-girls school, who rails against the rigidity otherwise embodied by the institution (represented by a caricaturally stuffy old woman holding up Shelly’s “Ozymandias” as a warning against ambition). As Miss G. takes her select “team” of students to the nearby lake for their diving practice (a sort of cult-of-young-body exercise that Scott shoots in slow motion to emphasize the teacher’s rapt devotion), she regales her charges with possibly fraudulent tales of her earth-stomping adventures and inspires them with platitudes like “set yourself free from the shackles of conformity.”
Set in the early 20th century and taking place on a picturesque estate from which the girls never leave (in one of the film’s ominous ambiguities, it’s hinted that they will never leave), the film unfolds primarily as a case study of both a vaguely fascistic individual and a group subject to that individual’s magnetism. There’s no shortage of works dealing with the mentality of mass hypnosis (whether represented in macro- or, as here, in microcosm) and Cracks adds little new to the canon, but it’s at least psychologically coherent, pointed in the way it shows how Miss G.’s repressed lesbianism and unfulfilled longing for escape lead her to idealize her most gifted and attractive students. In the beginning of the film that honor belongs to Di (Juno Temple), the unofficial leader of the half-dozen or so students under Miss G.’s sway and a girl who takes extra pleasure in enforcing the seemingly arbitrary rules of the dorm: “Only five personal belongings are allowed on your nightstand!”
Her authority challenged when an aristocratic Spanish girl, Fiamma (Maria Valverde), joins the dorm and not only outdoes her in both diving and good looks, but in the estimation of Miss G. as well, Di sets about turning the girls against her new rival—with minimal success. While many of the students take to the charming Spaniard, none does so more than her supervisor, whose obvious sexual attraction for the younger woman is clearly not reciprocated. As Miss G. becomes more and more hysterical with rejection, she charges her minions with vengeance, but after Black Swan, do we really need another film about a woman whose sexual repression leads to madness—and to a questionable lesbian bedroom scene? (In this case the impropriety of the encounter has to do with its equation of female homosexuality with frenzy and rape.)
Along the way, Scott and her co-screenwriters overstuff the project with scenes from the boarding-school-narrative playbook, including small asides concerning the overweight kid that the others make fun of and the inevitable student rebellion set piece—a Keats-inspired wine party complete with a Vigoesque ripping of pillows for surreal confetti. It all seems a tad much for the film to accommodate, at the very least detracting enough from the central through line to prevent it from evincing any real dramatic tension. This slackness is likely also the result of the film’s deliberate choice of a paradoxical aesthetic, which is to say that it uses the staid, unhurried pacing and conventionally bland film grammar common to English period pieces in hopes it will present an ironic juxtaposition with the sinister subject matter. But all its idyllic framings of the countryside and slow-mo underwater shots serve rather to sap the film’s never very abundant reserves of energy, leaving a mass of potentially fruitful material feeling like one more hodgepodge of things done better elsewhere.