CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD!
One of the best films I have seen in years. "Cracks" (2009) is a blend of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brody" (1969), "Atonement" (2007), and Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour"; but ultimately it is unique enough to maintain considerable originality. There was more of a "Lord of the Flies" homage in the source novel, what with its more savage African setting, but if anything the film works better with that replaced by claustrophobic and cloistered interior sets. Jordan Scott has great acting for-the-camera directing skills. The principle casting is especially good with Maria Valverde excellent and Eva Green (much like Elizabeth Hartman) able to tap into her inherent shyness and bring a more powerful authenticity to her character. And Juno Temple (a ringer for a young Glenda Farrell if you watch a lot of 30's films) is quite simply a force to be reckoned with, something you already know if you have watched her in other films.
What follows is full of spoilers as I am trying to assist people in understanding the story. So if you have not watched I suggest you stop reading and come back for the rest after your first viewing. Then watch it again as like most really good films it withholds at lot of its pleasure for multiple viewings.
So here are a few thoughts from my twisted mind:
You only begin to understand what the screenwriter/director is trying to say when you realize that the story is being told entirely from Diana's (Juno Temple) point-of-view and the other characters are simply plot devices to illustrate Diana's coming of age story. Miss "G" (Eva Green) is another Miss Brodie (Maggie Smith) and Diana is another Sandy (Pamela Franklin). As in the 1969 film, the star pupil gets her back up when the teacher she worships finds someone else to be her student ideal.
A key to both films is Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott", which was quoted in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brody". "When the Moon was overhead, Came two young lovers lately wed; "I am half sick of shadows," said The Lady of Shalott."
In the poem she is a magical being who lives alone on an island upstream from King Arthur's Camelot. Her purpose is to look at the world outside her castle window in a mirror, and to weave what she sees into a tapestry. She is forbidden by the magic to look at the outside world directly. Looking at the world in a mirror and depicting it in a work of art is an allegory for the life of a teacher viewing the world from an ivory tower and interpreting it for her young students.
In similar ways Miss Brodie and Miss "G" are wonderful teachers and most young girls would have benefited from membership in their groups, mostly because of the breaking of conventions and the encouragement to openly explore the possibilities life offers. But both have fatal flaws. Miss Brodie is judgmental and irresponsible, full of misguided ideals and grievances, and totally confident that the world is as simplistic as she wants it to be. Miss "G's" confidence, on the other hand, is a complete façade; hiding a brittle basket case who can only bloom in the protected niche of the school, despite her seeming openness to experiencing life.
Both are downbeat films but "Cracks" considerably less so. This is because while Sandy's depressing transformation into and betrayal of Miss Brodie was the principle dynamic, Diana ultimately wises up to the folly of what her teacher is about. And Diana's atonement is a very positive one.
Once you understand that Diana's growth is the principle dynamic, the rest of the story fits together rather smoothly. The fatal attraction of Miss "G" to Fiamma (Maria Valverde) is almost a Hitchcock McGuffin, in that it provides a lot of character motivation but is ultimately just a plot device.
Interestingly the climatic scene comes well before the end of the film. It is the scene where Diana is helping Fiamma put on makeup for their "Eve of St. Agnes" feast. The importance of the scene (and the reason they linger on Fiamma's eye contact) is that it is at this point that a part of Fiamma's spirit becomes a part of Diana, something which symbolically happened when Fiamma gave her the bottle several scenes earlier. And Diana takes both bottle and spirit with her when she leaves the island at the end. In "Jane Eyre" this same dynamic occurs between Jane and Helen; with the gentle spirit of Helen passing to Jane and ultimately being the transformative force in her life.
Although I love this climatic scene, my favorite scene comes a bit later when Diana is alone with the headmistress in her office. I think that I like it so well because for a first time director, Jordan Scott has an intuitive grasp of the limitations of sentimentality and she creates a scene which affects the viewer in a way they cannot help, and they cry. This can be wonderful but a director must carefully employ it because it will not work if the viewer picks up on "false" sentimentality. So unlike such scenes in many movies, Juno Temple (who has no lines in the scene) is not weeping, trying to get you to weep. Instead she is trying not to cry; and the scene is so much more powerful because of this restraint, the slick way the scene is edited, and the talent for nonverbal acting that Temple brings to the film.
The ending of "Cracks" is both moving and intriguing, in large part because of the slick editing. They cut between shots of the girls reading a note and shots of the exiled Miss "G" unpacking and staring at a photo of her team (after counting to be sure she only has five items on her nightstand). Then the audio reveals it is not Miss G's message but Diana's atonement note, at which time the editor cuts to a shot of Diana sitting on the ferry with the book, the bottle, and their map. The film goes out on a shot of Diana's face; as she is leaving the cloistered island to take the path in life that she believes Fiamma would have taken.
Then again what do I know? I'm only a child.