3.5 out of 5 stars

Appearances can be deceiving. This is one of the lessons learned by the young girl at the centre of Ruth Platt’s Martyrs Lane, after a friendship she innocently forms turns out to be something much darker. And it’s worth bearing in mind. Martyrs Lane starts out feeling like a pretty conventional horror exercise, and Platt can never fully resist the pull of the haunted house genre, but in time it reveals itself as a more human work, ultimately aiming to be more affecting than scary. 

Markedly different from Platt’s two previous features, The Lesson (2015) and The Black Forest (2019)—although children figured prominently in them both, too—Martyrs Lane is based on her 2019 short film of the same name, now with a different cast.

10-year-old Leah (Kiera Thompson) is the younger daughter of English vicar Thomas (Steven Cree) and his wife Sarah (Denise Gough), and she’s fascinated by a locket constantly worn by her mother, so she pinches it, which upsets Sarah, who appears to struggle with life at the best of times.

Leah also meets another little girl (Sienna Sayer) in the woods near their house, and this girl soon becomes a nightly visitor to Leah’s bedroom, playing truth-and-lie games and seeming to share Leah’s interest in the locket and its contents. There are no prizes for guessing how this girl (unnamed until late in the film) is different from Leah, and much of the pleasure of Martyrs Lane lies in the way that the past and its secrets are gradually unwrapped rather than in any dramatic twists or revelations. 

Martyrs Lane is Gothic at heart, with much of it taking place at night and most of the action constrained to the immediate environs of a single house still feeling the effects of an undiscussed tragedy. Platt doesn’t skimp on horror tropes, either. Virtually the first shot shows Leah in a graveyard, she’s soon after seen walking through a dark house with creaking floorboards, and it isn’t too long before a mandatory creepy doll makes an appearance. The moon glows through black trees…. a child pulls a white sheet over her head… the modest suburban church where Thomas works seems to have a choir the equal of Westminster Abbey’s, available to sing all hours of the day, in order to provide a suitably atmospheric aural backdrop to his conversation with Leah about heaven and hell.

Indeed, Platt sometimes seems unable to decide between the competing pulls of the terrifying grotesque and a much gentler, more wistful ghost story. As a result, the “it was all a dream” get-out is a bit overused as an excuse for more lurid episodes, especially at the end of the movie. However, though Martyrs Lane is more creepy than terrifying, there are some genuinely effective jump scares—and in any case, the conventions of horror don’t dominate, even though they might look like they’re going to. What emerges as Martyrs Lane progresses is a subtler film where much is left unsaid, and though the main thrust of the plot holds few surprises, the way it’s presented is more often oblique than direct.

The first appearance of Leah’s strange friend in the woods, for example (the most important narrative development to that point), is handled with wonderful casualness, allowing us just a glimpse of this new character for a few seconds.

Some early business with Leah’s older sister Bex (Hannah Rae) panicking about the family dog running onto a road, which seems unimportant at the time, also gains significance by the end. So do the frequent shots of people in mirrors, initially appearing nothing more than a stylistic flourish but then given meaning by Sarah’s comparison of a traumatic event in her past to stepping through a mirror.

Leah’s occasional need for an inhaler has no narrative part to play but emphasises, perhaps, the fragility of life. And her name is no accident either, as later revelations make clear that it’s a reference to the Biblical wife of Jacob.

Anne Müller’s music score, like much of the storytelling, is so restrained as to be almost elliptical. (It’s worth noting that the music and audio effects are often very quiet, so you’ll need to hit the volume button.) Márk Györi’s cinematography, though possibly constrained in its range of moods by the low lighting, captures just the right air of slight unreality in many scenes without becoming distractingly mannered.

This undemonstrative approach by the filmmakers (at least when Platt’s not giving in to genre cliché) could have resulted in a movie too low-key to be engaging, even a cold one, but Martyrs Lane is emphatically saved from that by five terrific performances in the key roles, all of them three-dimensional and full of life. 

Foremost among them are the two young girls, as Thompson and Sayer are superb in different ways. Thompson’s Leah is almost completely the focus of the story (which is generally more interested in female than male characters), and Thompson never fails to convince us this is a real girl with all the complexities that make up real people. She’s strong-willed and curious but also cautious and prone to worry. The visitor, played by Sayer, is, of course, a much less ordinary character, and more outgoing than Leah. But she too is fully developed, being friendly but also needy and exploitative. Changes in the way she’s made up and shot help us to understand more about her exactly as Leah grows too.

The real mystery at the centre of the movie isn’t the strange girl, but Gough’s mother, and she too consistently avoids overdoing the role, which could have so easily been reduced to scenery-chewing. She instead provides a credible portrait of a woman coming close to breaking point. The film’s concern with maternal loss inevitably recalls J.A Bayona’s The Orphanage/El Orfanato (2007), though Martyrs Lane is smaller and less flashy. Similarly, in a more self-effacing way, Gough is as impressive as Belén Rueda in that film.

In smaller parts, Rae’s Bex is equally persuasive in her combination of teenage insouciance with genuine affection for her family, while Cree’s Thomas is a nice departure from the usual screen vicar. He’s a little remote from his family but not an unworldly man, worrying about expense claims and sneaking a cigarette on the church’s porch.

Martyrs Lane suffers at times from not being fully committed to the more emotionally driven path Platt clearly wants to take. It would work perfectly well without most of the overt horror elements. But even if they mean the film doesn’t get the chance to explore its outstandingly rendered characters in as much depth as it could have, the things that go bump in the night are never allowed to overwhelm the powerful story of family, loss, and pain that’s at the core of Martyrs Lane. And it’s distinctly superior to most movies about pallid little girls making inexplicable appearances in gloomy vicarages. 

UK | 2021 | 96 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Ruth Platt.
starring: Denise Gough, Steven Cree, Anastasia Hille, Hannah Rae & Kiera Thompson.