The first word in the title of Ruth Platt’s Martyrs Lane might suggest that the film is going for something extreme like Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) – but in fact the lane in question is a leafy country road leading from the village church where Thomas (Steven Cree) is the local priest, to the big country vicarage where he lives with his wife Sarah (Denise Gough), their teenaged daughter Bex (Hannah Rae) who is about to start university, and her 10-year-old sister Leah (Kiera Thompson). This is a cosy English idyll, although Sarah’s sensitivity, nervousness and distance, carefully observed if not fully understood by Leah, suggests that there is a shadow haunting this family, and undermining its happiness. This is to be a story of mothers and daughters, and one might even detect wordplay in the title on mater, the Latin word for ‘mother’ (in a later scene, Leah will translate into English a Latin lyric sung by her father’s choir).
In fact the Lane received its name from a piece of local history. As Bex tells Leah, local monks fleeing the rapine of Henry VIII’s soldiers were massacred there, and now linger as ghosts. “People don’t leave their spirits behind when they die,” Thomas will later reassure Leah. “Only things, only memories.” Perhaps Bex and Thomas are both right. For on the one hand, things left behind abound in Martyrs Lane, starting with the contents of Sarah’s locket – a mysterious curl of hair – which Leah first dreams of taking, and then actually takes, only to lose it out the window while trying to cover up her theft. In her subsequent quest for the missing curl – a memento of immense value to her mother – Leah will be assisted by a nameless girl (Sienna Sayer) dressed in an angel’s costume who first appears to Leah in the woods by the Lane, and who then starts visiting Leah in her bedroom at night, knocking on her upstairs window like Eli in Tomas Alfredon’s Let The Right One In (2008).
Young Leah nearly died at birth, and has, owing to her asthma, nearly died again since, ensuring that she has a special relationship with the other side of life’s lane. Whether the visiting girl is, as she herself claims, Leah’s guardian angel, or a vampire, demon or ghost, or a dreamy manifestation of psychological tension, she does seem, in this house full of mirrors, to be Leah’s double. Both, after all, are looking for companionship from someone roughly their same age, both become furtive playmates, both feel forgotten and unloved by their mother, and both claim equally to “have bad things in [their] head”. The girl’s nightly game sends Leah on a treasure hunt for all manner of lost objects whose discovery seems only to upset Sarah further. For those missing things – a button, baby teeth – signify a greater loss in this family which Leah will only gradually come to comprehend, and which cannot simply be dispelled by having its name spoken aloud after so many years of repression (“Bury all this,” Bex will instruct her sister, “Just bury it deep in the ground and never think about it again”).
Leah, who (in an inversion of the norms of the mother-daughter relationship) is always ready with salve or a tender touch whenever Sarah gets hurt, wants more than anything to heal her mother’s heartache and to win her love – but Leah’s every attempt to do so seems only to drive Sarah further away from her. This is ultimately a tragic ghost story, as the past talks to and through Leah, reaching out to make its claims on the present. Meanwhile writer/director Platt has crafted a modern gothic atmosphere from canted angles, eerie reflections and shadowy figures kept out of focus in the screen’s margins, and proves again, as with her previous features The Lesson (2015) and The Black Forest (2019), to be a real director of actors, drawing subtle, intimate performances from her cast. Disproving the conventional wisdom that one should never work with children, Platt elicits winning turns from Sayer and especially Thompson. The latter, expertly conveying inquisitiveness and apprehension in equal measure, carries the film’s considerable emotional weight on her young shoulders.
Leah’s journey to uncover – if not quite alleviate – the aching void in her household’s centre offers a little girl’s view of adult trauma, and comes with a deeply affecting sadness. It is time for Platt to be recognised, along with Rose Glass, Jennifer Sheridan and Prano Bailey-Bond, as among the most exciting voices working in UK genre filmmaking today and casting a refreshingly female gaze over the horror landscape. Martyrs Lane is an understated, decidedly non-extreme study in the legacies of grief, and in the sometimes painful divisions of familial love.
strap: Ruth Platt’s subtle, emotionally intelligent ghost story unearths aching grief and loss in a family from a young girl’s point of view
© Anton Bitel