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Film review: Martyrs Lane

03 December 2021

Stephen Brown sees an ambiguous ghost story

Denise Gough as Sarah, the mother, in Martyrs Lane

Denise Gough as Sarah, the mother, in Martyrs Lane

THE Bible (Genesis 29.30) tells us that Jacob loved Rachel rather than Leah. Thereby hangs the plot of Martyrs Lane (no BBFC certificate issued). A ten year-old girl, Leah (Kiera Thompson), lives in a large vicarage — St Mary’s, Harrow on the Hill, actually — where Thomas (Steven Cree) is priest. Her glum mother, Sarah (Denise Gough), and aggressive teenage sister, Rebecca (Hannah Rae), complete the family. Or do they?

Hovering over them is the unspoken loss of a middle child. When Leah begins having nightly visits from a mysterious young guest (played by Sienna Sayers), she begins to realise why her mother is so distant. Whether this new-found knowledge occurs in her dreams or waking state is left for us to decide. This is, after all, a ghost story.

The director, Ruth Platt (The Lesson), never lets us settle on deciding whether it is a malevolent spirit or, in accordance with the Hebrews 13.2 text on the door, Leah is entertaining an angel unawares. When she learns that there was another sister, Rachel, killed in a road accident, it generates a disturbing sibling rivalry, fuelling fears that Sarah loves only that deceased child, not her.

Even though there is an over-reliance on loud, unexpected sound effects, Martyrs Lane hangs heavily in the pit of one’s stomach. When Leah and her father listen to the church choir rehearsing Non Moriar Sed Vivau (I shall not die but live), taken from Psalm 117, there is a temporary respite. True to the Gothic inheritance of the film, this won’t last, we know, as the girl tries piecing together what happened by searching through trinkets, lockets of hair, and baby teeth.

Rebecca (known as Bex) alternates between tormenting Leah with horror stories of the slaughtered monks in Martyrs Lane near by and then befriending her. Like their mother, Bex harbours secrets that she is not prepared to divulge. In an effort to deny the reality that someone died tragically, she urges her sister to bury the items that she has accumulated. Leah does so, regarding each piece as precious treasure.

The Christian faith is well to the fore in the narrative, offering insights and occasional comfort in the process. The vicar may sometimes be distracted by running an open house for needy people, but his heart remains in the right place regarding his family. At Leah’s confirmation, nothing wicked this way comes, whereas in many such films a religious ceremony has to be stereotypically threatened or overwhelmed by Satanic powers.

This is a well-crafted piece, recognising the boundary between creating enough frissons to satisfy viewers without toppling over into absurdity. Amid human grief, death has ways of bestowing gifts on the bereaved. The film explores something of this, particularly asking us if we are ready to accept what is being offered. In this case, souls will be laid to rest only when we realise that we need to unearth the treasure that we have buried, letting go and letting God. Those continuing bonds of affection for a loved one can then herald the possibility of resurrection. The ambiguous ending of Martyrs Lane is the stronger for allowing this interpretation to sit alongside other ones.

On Shudder or via other streaming services

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