MARTYRS LANE (Fantasia 2021) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
Following up her previous features The Lesson (2015) and The Black Forest (2019), British actor-turned-filmmaker Ruth Platt returns with the soon-to-be-cult-favorite Martyrs Lane, which recently had its world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival. Unlike her debut feature which – like this most recent effort – easily falls under the generic umbrella of the horror film, while The Lesson was an extraordinary exploration of power and violence played out between vicious students and a repressed teacher who has enough, Martyrs Lane could not tonally be more different. Gone are the menacing nail guns, and here instead the visceral violence (and threat of it) is replaced by something altogether more ambiently gothic in tone as Platt turns her attention towards the ghost story.
While the family drama of The Black Forest revealed Platt’s strong capacity to work beyond this genre alone, between them, The Lesson and Martyrs Lane reveal that even just in terms of horror itself, Platt is an impressively agile filmmaker. Martyrs Lane centers on asthmatic ten-year-old Leah (Kiera Thompson) who lives in a rural vicarage with her father Thomas (Steven Cree), mother Sarah (Denise Gough), and thoroughly reprehensible older sister Bex (Hannah Rae). Aside from the gentleness of her kind but busy father, it’s largely a life of joyless solitude for Leah; Bex is spending her final days before leaving home for university largely tormenting her little sister, while Leah desperately seeks some way to connect with her mother, who struggles to feign even the vaguest sign of genuine affection for her youngest child. It is into this scenario that a ghostly visitation from a young girl her own age comes as a brief comfort for Leah – playing games, sharing secrets and making bed tents, the two bond almost instantly. But she is also no fool, and it does not take too long for her to realize that her new best friend may not be the guardian angel she had hoped for, but something with more malign intentions.
Coming from an acting background herself it is perhaps little surprise Platt excels at drawing such superior performances from her cast, but in the case of Kiera Thompson, she has surely gone above and beyond. While young in years, Platt’s collaboration with the young actor results in Leah being more than the main character of Martyrs Lane – she is the very foundation the film is built on. Easily outshining the otherwise very solid performances of her much older professional peers in the film, Thompson brings to Leah exactly the right amount of weight. It’s a strange word at first, perhaps, but there is a heaviness to this character that Thompson captures in such an astonishingly authentic way that the tragedy of her character in many senses remains unspoken; that heaviness that weighs her down stands in unspoken yet omnipresent opposition to the assumed lightness of childhood itself. We see flashes of this in her encounters with her supernatural playmate in particular, but otherwise – and often without words – Thompson’s performance powerfully communicates a child lost in the darkness of the adult world.
Thematically, it is here where the larger nightmare of Martyrs Lane manifests. While on one level this is a ghost story about a child who fears her mother does not love her, it is more broadly a vision of a nightmare world where adults are unable to speak openly and honestly with children – and the consequences are chilling. Passionately rejecting the far-too-common tendency to reduce children to ciphers for innocence or symbolic tools in the telling of stories about adults, in Martyrs Lane Ruth Platt pulls back the curtain into the complexity and sophistication of the childhood experience with breathtaking imagination, extraordinary filmmaking, and a heartfelt, sincere respect for children themselves.