8 Sep 2021
Denise Gough, Kiera Thompson, SiennaSayer
Six years ago, filmmaker Ruth Platt released the thriller The Lesson. While essentially no one else saw the film, I was impressed enough by it to look forward to whatever else Platt wanted to make.
So here’s her follow up, the grief-driven horror Martyrs Lane.
Platt’s story of a haunting walks in familiar circles, as confused and lonesome 10-year-old Leah (a heart-bruisingly melancholy Kiera Thompson) makes a spooky new friend (Sienna Sayer, wonderful). By day Leah rattles about the vicarage where her father (Steven Cree) is minister, her older sister (Hannah Rae) kills time before fleeing for university, and her mom (Denise Gough) mourns something secretly.
At night, the creaks and whistles combine with Leah’s fears, imagination and loneliness to conjure a visitor who leaves Leah with clues to follow.
There is a lot about Martyrs Lane that feels familiar, but Platt grounds her spectral tale in messy, lived-in family drama. Set design, costuming, framing, moments of silence, pointed cruelties followed by protective love—all of it combines to create an atmosphere both familial and haunted. No austere staircases, empty nurseries, or any of the other chilly and spare environs where you might expect to set a mournful ghost story. Instead, Leah’s home bears the weary chaos and forced cheer of family and absence.
Thompson’s performance is driven by the recognizable, shapeless guilt that looms in a child’s imagination, making every perceived transgression somehow unforgivable and therefore impossible to share, even with a caring adult. Cree’s bright presence offsets the gloom nicely, while Sayer’s ghostly cherubic image is wonderfully, tenderly haunting.
Gough’s understated frailty is the unease that haunts the film from its opening, a feeling that blossoms into dread as the tale wears on.
Platt and her talented group do not fail to deliver on the promise of their ghost story. The issue is only that, while the execution is impeccable, the story itself is a bit tired. Wisely, Platt capitalizes on character over story, leaving you so invested in this little girl and her family that you’ll likely forgive the sense of having been here before.
And, like me, you’ll probably keep an eye out for wherever it is Platt wants to take you next.