"The most important thing in life is desire," proclaims Miss G (Eva Green), the sultry diving instructress at a girls' boarding school in Jordan Scott's "Cracks." The sole worldly figure at cloistered St. Matilda's, she spins wild tales and incites even wilder rumors, surreptitiously passing the girls contraband books as if it's her job to spread dirty secrets.
"The team," led by snooty mean girl Di (Juno Temple), rules the school with a manicured fist, expecting from others the obeisance they show Miss G. One hapless minion is made to re-butter Di's toast until she's covered every inch. But when the effortlessly suave Fiamma (María Valverde) is suddenly transferred in, her mere presence challenges Di's authority and Miss G's cosmopolitan reputation. What need of a smoky diving coach when there's a bona fide Spanish princess, or so they say, about?
Working with cinematographer John Mathieson, a frequent collaborator of her father, Ridley Scott, Jordan Scott creates an atmosphere of dusky longing and a sense of the school as an oasis of (relative) sanity amid a verdant wilderness. Although the setting has been changed to England from the South Africa of Sheila Kohler's source novel, the feeling of a colonial outpost remains.
But atmosphere is about all "Cracks" has going for it. Although it's nominally set between the wars, the movie feels rootless and adrift, less a fable than a story only half told. There are smatterings of peculiar argot — a "crack" is a crush, such as the one the girls have on Miss G, while an argument transpires over whether a young woman has stormed off in a "bate" or a "wuss" — and intimations that the girls will never leave. (You keep waiting for the revelation that they'll be shipped off to join the spare-parts factories of "Never Let Me Go.") But the pieces never form a convincing, or coherent, whole.
That much of "Cracks" feels as if it's been passed down from other movies at least takes some of the curse off its nasty climax, a thoughtless throwback to the suspicious Sapphists of "The Children's Hour." Perhaps desire is the most important thing in life, but "Cracks" suggests that some desires are less trustworthy than others.
"Cracks." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.