Leah is a ten-year-old vicar’s daughter who feels strangely ostracised by her own family. Playing second fiddle to the needs of the parish and being bullied by her bolshy older sister is part and parcel of her lot in life. However, what truly troubles her is the indifference and emotional frostiness of her highly-strung mother.
When Leah steals the contents of her mum’s cherished locket she literally opens the window to a spectral playmate with a sinister agenda. A dangerous game of truth versus lies ensues that will force her family to pick at the painful scabs of a past tragedy that still dominates and defines their lives.
Ruth Platt’s latest feature is a highly evocative and deeply perceptive snapshot of childhood trauma in the face of unexplained familial detachment. Her child’s eye study of inner loneliness among company plays like a developing polaroid of discombobulation and paranoia. Capturing perfectly the stifling uncertainty of growing up in the asphyxiating shadow of panoptic secrecy and the frustration of half-glimpsed exactitudes.
The audience is invited to solve the mystery alongside Leah as we harvest the eerie clues as and when she does. This creates an extraordinary empathy with her that the filmmakers cleverly exploit for many of the movies extremely effective jump scares and disturbing set-pieces. There are no machiavellian Sixth Sense type mega-twists to argue about here. The movie is far too organic for that, and besides the joy comes from experiencing the events unfolding as Leah’s investigative partner and emerging from murky confusion with her.
Initially, Martyrs Lane may seem like a relatively generic, even cliched, ghost story. Bedraggled angel wings, minacious whisperings from beyond the grave, and creepy soil-caked dolls are just a few genre tropes you will be familiar with. That being said, there is an equal number of creative and narrative innovations to broker a fresh sentiency that makes it one of the finest supernatural horror films of the year.
There is a palpable blend of chaotic realism and confident authenticity that permeates the depiction of Leah’s homelife. It comes as no surprise to learn that Platt grew up in a vicarage herself, her young mind soaking up the late-night visitor intrusions into her abode and overheard snippets of hushed exorcism conversations. The way she distills these memories into nightmare fuel for Leah is a masterclass in intimate world-building.
This tangible flavor of kitchen sink realism is built upon beautifully by Anne Müller’s symbiotic score that accentuates but never hijacks the day-to-day normalcy nor drowns out the delicacy of the night-time dread. Similarly, Márk Györi’s gorgeous cinematography embraces the same ethic. Keeping the audience on their toes with a gentle aesthetic hug of warm homespun idyll one minute and a suffocating chest crush of surrealist phantasmagoria the next.
With the stage so diligently set, it is up to the actors to flesh out the intricate emotionality of Platt’s ghostly tale and she must be proud of their commitment and dedication to its humanistic ethos.
A huge portion of the narrative heavy lifting lies on the shoulders of the two youngsters Kiera Thompson and Sienna Sayer who play Leah and her playdate from the deadlands respectively. They share charming screen chemistry as their companionship slowly drifts from harmless affinity to a dangerous conflict of interests.
Denise Gough brings a remarkably subtle depth to the role of Leah’s psychologically battered mother Sarah. It is a performance of elegance and dignity that encapsulates the debilitative texture of extreme loss without crutching on hysterical melodrama.
The mixed message interactions with her daughter are both touching and heartbreakingly hollow at the same time, formulating a time bomb of emotional wariness that ticks down ominously inside the nucleus of Martyrs Lane. When it does finally explode, the two actresses find yet another gear in an astonishing scene of raw candor. A cathartic and moving confessional, of rare subtlety within the genre, that contextualises and cements all the hard work that precedes it.
Traditionally the ghost story has always incorporated metaphors for repressed guilt, abject loneliness, and mental bruising. In that sense, Martyrs Lane is no exception. Although clearly influenced by the rich seam of top-tier Spanish spookers such as The Devil’s Backbone, The Orphanage, and Pan’s Labyrinth in general, its true spirit animal is Víctor Erice’s meditation on fascism The Spirit of the Beehive. Like Erice, Platt’s primary contemplation is the double-edged sword of resourcefulness and troublemaking that constitutes the overactive imagination of children.
Ironically, and in delicious juxtaposition to the film’s narrative arc, it is sheer honesty that sets Martyrs Lane apart from its peers. A bold and creatively deft approach to immersive cinema that pays lip service to its predecessors yet stoically refuses to mimic them.
A superior and classy escape room of a movie that makes you jump out of your skin whilst intelligently exploring what it takes to live comfortably within it.
World Premiere Fantasia Film Festival 2021 Scheduled
Supernatural Drama, Horror Mystery | UK | 2021 | 96 mins | Ipso Facto Productions | Released 9th September on SHUDDER | Dir. Ruth Platt | Cast: Denise Gough, Sienna Sayer, Kiera Thompson
[please note this film is making it’s UK Film Premiere at Edinburgh Film Festival 20th August [more details]]