Gossamer threads are woven together to create a haunting tale of ghosts and grief as one family searches for closure in Martyrs Lane, which premiered on Shudder on Thursday, September 9, 2021.
Billed as Horror, but more a Drama/Thriller blend, Martyrs Lane should be placed alongside other such elevated ghost stories as 2020’s Relic, 2019’s Broken Ghost and 2018’s The Little Stranger. More a dramatic tale of family secrets, the film’s central character is 10-year-old Leah (Kiera Thompson: His Name Was Gerry 2020, The Salisbury Poisonings series). Struggling for her distant mother’s (Denise Gough: ‘71 2014, The Good Traitor 2020) attention, dodging the bullying of her teenage sister (Hannah Rae: City of Tiny Lights 2016, Carmilla 2019), and just hoping for a moment of her pastor father’s (Steven Cree: Outlander series, A Discovery of Witches series) time, the young girl wanders through her daily life largely unnoticed.
That is until fate delivers a mysterious new friend into her world. A girl without a name (Sienna Sayer: Silent Witness series, Silent Night 2020), attired in crooked angel wings and full of cryptic clues, Leah’s new friend brings much needed laughter. At first, anyway. Eventually her nighttime visitor’s riddles grow too disturbing for Leah, who is slowly beginning to piece together a puzzle that shines a dangerous light on her world. What was once innocent now feels threatening, and Leah is afraid that her angelic friend is something much more sinister.
Written and directed by Ruth Platt (The Lesson 2015, The Black Forest 2019), Martyrs Lane is thick with emotional resonance as it explores how buried secrets always find their way aboveground. Led by the phenomenal acting talents of two very young actresses, it’s a film that defies the conventional “ghost story,” instead painting a refined picture of a family’s grief. Which is to say that moviegoers should not expect 1982’s Poltergeist, or anything like it, but a nuanced and moving film that lacks in blood and gore.
Martyrs Lane succeeds by combining elements of Drama with an atypical ghost story, creating a Neo Gothic exploration of denial, avoidance, and the process of grieving. However, this is also a story that includes a heavy religious element, as Leah’s family lives in a vicarage within the congregation where her father is pastor. In this, Catholic guilt serves as its own character alongside themes that touch upon angels and the afterlife, hospitality, and miraculous rabbits.
A beautifully crafted undertaking, Martyrs Lane was filmed on location at St. Mary’s Vicarage in Harrow on the Hill, London. Utilizing symbology within its magnificent visuals, the film’s cinematography (Márk Györi: Katalin Varga 2009, Calibre 2018) is flawlessly complemented by a stunning original score composed and performed by Anne Müller (Obaachan short 2021), who has performed onstage with Agnes Obel.
Each of these individual elements serve to bolster the performances of the exceptional cast, which is led by Thompson and Sayer. In the leading role, young Thompson draws her audience straight into Leah’s heart. Still trying to find her place in the world around her, she fails to understand her mother’s perpetual aloofness and her sister’s moments of cruelty, all as she tries to accept her father’s position in the congregation and the demands it brings. Not particularly shy but also not as precocious as some others, Leah enjoys playing piano with her mother as well as wandering the grounds of the vicarage. She struggles with frequent nightmares and, like most young girls, has a nosey streak, but she’s by and large an average girl. Somehow Thompson relays all of this without extraneous dialogue, simply walking her viewers through her daily experience to give us a taste of what her character is made of.
The introduction of Sayer’s unnamed character shows us more about Leah and the morals that have been ingrained into the youngster. By provoking Thompson’s Leah, Sayer serves as the impetus for dramatic evolution. Without a name—at least, initially—and hopeful of acquiring Leah’s assistance in discovering her identity, Sayer delivers a complicated performance with a graceful ease. And the same can be said for their adult co-star Gough, who relays the intricate emotions of her own character with an authenticity that is wholly believable. In this, Gough delivers a stand-out performance as a mother haunted by her past.
All of this said, at 106 minutes, Martyrs Lane is a slow-moving experience that requires patience. Without the lightning speed thrills and gratuitous violence of most modern Horror, it is a movie that necessitates a tacit agreement from its viewers: there will be nothing here that makes you shudder. Instead, if the idea of an elevated ghost story driven by thick character development and two exquisite young actresses is something that excites you, this is a ‘must watch’ addition to your queue. For this, Cryptic Rock gives Martyrs Lane 4 of 5 stars.