Martyrs Lane
"An exquisitely crafted piece of work." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

Cinema abounds with teenagers and young couples running from supernatural terrors, pitting their own will to survives against seemingly implacable foes, but that’s lightweight stuff. To have a child is to know a different kind of fear, and sometimes what is almost a child is even worse. As Elizabeth Barret Browning wrote, “Show me Michael with the sword/Rather than such angels, Lord.”

Leah (Kiera Thompson) is a child of flesh and blood and no shortage of spirit, a keen explorer, investigator and discoverer of strange things. She lives in a crumbling old rectory with her vicar father, strangely distant mother and big sister Bex (Hannah Rae), who is shortly due to depart for university. Everybody is busy and preoccupied with something or other, so Leah is left to wander, often lonely, making her own entertainment, trying to make sense of confusing rules which see all sorts of things labelled off bounds.

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One such place is the short cut leading towards the rectory from Martyrs Lane, where Bex takes her one day, telling her the story of a gruesome historical massacre, doubtless trying to give her a good scare as is every big sibling's sworn duty. Leah isn’t scared by the story but she does have a strange experience in the woods – the sort of thing nobody else takes seriously, especially when it’s reported by a child. That night, a little golden-haired girl with tied-on wings comes to her window. “Let me in!” she says, and Leah complies.

Anybody who has read much folklore will draw a sharp intake of breath at this point, but no immediate harm seems to come to our young heroine. The visitor is friendly, solicitous. she wants to play games, and over the course of several days and nights she spurs Leah on to undertake a curious investigation – one which compromises her, and all her family, far more deeply than she can anticipate. It’s a carefully balanced tale filled with competing yet strangely concordant supernatural elements, beguiling in its beauty and, at times, very, very dark.

Both young children (Thompson and Sienna Sayer) deliver wonderfully fresh performances which feel absolutely real, carrying us through a relationship which shifts in unexpected ways. This is not simply a story of an innocent being preyed upon. Leah isn’t stupid, and often makes up with emotional intelligence for what she lacks in knowledge. She’s also alert to at least some of what’s going on among the adults around her, though this doesn’t necessarily provide reassurance. Her agency and courage are such that you won’t need to be a child to relate to her.

There are elements of Pagan tradition scattered throughout this film, yet whilst many tales of its ilk pit the old ways and Christianity against one another, here they are intertwined as surely as the roots of the ancient yew in the garden coil around the foundations of the church. The personal is entangled with the otherworldly. Threats or wisdom from any source might be equally real. Leah’s father, however, doesn’t understand, offering a distanced, gentle philosophy which has worked for him but seems inadequate when confronted with the raw immediacy of Leah’s world. Her mother (Denise Gough, also on excellent form) understands the darkness all too well, but that may be part of what is keeping her and Leah apart, and it’s unclear whether either of them can break through that barrier before it is too late. All the best ghost stories are built on something real and sometimes facing that realness is too much to bear.

A potent little fable which benefits from stunning production design and cinematography along with a melodic score, Martyrs Lane, which screened at Fantasia 2021, is the sort of tale we rarely see in cinema today. It’s an exquisitely crafted piece of work which deserves to be called haunting, and those who seek it out and uncover its secrets will treasure it. Catch it as soon as you can and spread the word. Just be careful of what words you speak on moonlit nights when the wind rattles at your window panes.

Reviewed on: 20 Aug 2021
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A small, nightly visitor brings comfort to a lonely girl growing up in a large vicarage, but soon she will realise that her little visitor offers knowledge that might be very, very dangerous.

Director: Ruth Platt

Writer: Ruth Platt

Starring: Denise Gough, Steven Cree, Anastasia Hille, Hannah Ray

Year: 2021

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: UK

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