On an English island in 1934 stands a private school for girls where they are essentially cut off from the outside world aside from the boat which travels to the mainland. One of the classes is led by the "team captain" Di Radfield (Juno Temple) who ensures they follow the rules, which include doing everything she says, even putting the butter on her morning toast as ordered, but most importantly they should look up to their favourite teacher Miss G (Eva Green) who Di idolises and encourages the other girls to do the same. They are most proud of their diving class where Miss G tutors them in the skills of the sport, and Di as teacher's pet shines at this, but soon there will be someone arriving at the school who will upset their applecart...
Sort of a cross between The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and a twisted Dead Poets Society, Cracks was the first feature directed by Jordan Scott, the daughter of the much-respected Ridley Scott and niece of Tony Scott, both of whom united to produce this. If you were expecting a work very much in the vein of her famous relatives, then this proved she was her own woman when it came to crafting a story, for you could not imagine Ridley or Tony even considering Sheila Kohler's novel for the big screen it was so outside of what they were comfortable with, closer to an art film that both of them had begun their careers with. That said, Jordan had begun her directing career in advertising as well, and she had a good eye for the striking image.
Maybe not so much striking in this case, for the most part anyway, and more bleakly atmospheric as the supposed idyll of all girls together in this boarding school (there's barely a man with a speaking role in the whole movie) is gradually revealed to be a toxic climate which stifles the teens. The setting makes that all the clearer, but then film has always had an untrustworthy relationship with these establishments, and placing that on such an island in this period of time where the pressure cooker environment is sure to result in something bad occurring was palpable indeed. As the opening scenes unfold we see that Miss G is worldly enough to impress her young charges, with her poise, exciting tales of the places she's visited, and generally being something to aspire to as the girls see it.
Scott then spends the rest of the movie chipping away at Miss G's façade until it is revealed she has feet of clay, and what begins this sorry journey into darkness is the arrival of Spanish aristocrat's daughter Fiamma (María Valverde) who is there to be taught a lesson by her parents for running away with the wrong boy back home. It soon transpires that she has all the experience in her short life that Miss G can only dream of - and does - which earns the wrath of Di who takes an instant dislike to her, particularly when Fiamma patently has no respect for her rules or regulations. They do have one thing in common, however: both want Fiamma to leave, though their tutor has other ideas as she grows obsessed with the girl, both as an ideal and sexually.
There was a case here of the screaming habdabs about evil lesbians corrupting young girls, true, but crucially it avoided unnecessary lecturing from a reactionary stance through a brace of excellent performances always managing to find the sympathetic heart of their characters, even when they were behaving with cruelty. Green especially, when given the chance to essay such an unusual persona, offered a terrific reading which made Miss G a tragic figure while remaining increasingly disturbing: the scenes near the end where she takes the abuse of her position too far were very uncomfortable thanks to the complex range of emotions racing through both her and the pupils. Temple could have played Di as a typical "mean girl", but when we realise how lost she would be without this mother figure she emerged as one of the most pathos-inducing of the lot, and Valverde was never less than convincing as the rebel catalyst for the clique's meltdown whose asthma will be significant. Basically, if your teacher wants to go skinny dipping, leave her to go alone. Music by Javier Navarette.