Martyrs Lane- Edinburgh International Film Festival 2021 – Film Review

Ghost stories always seem more effective when walking through graveyards at night as a child and Leah, the child protagonist in Martyrs Lane, certainly believes in those stories. The supernatural is interwoven with religion and grief with a gothic interpretation within Martyrs Lane which pays homage to old fashioned ghost stories with its sombre hues, psychological tension and otherworldly atmosphere. Martyrs Lane is a gripping, well-executed horror by Ruth Platt that will linger in the minds of its audience with its spine chilling portrait.

Leah is the younger daughter within a vicar’s family who attends Sunday school with vigour and is prone to reciting proverbs from the bible at whim. She is a serious but sensitive child, has nightmares and clashes with her older sister with physical altercations. However, Leah is quite content to be investigating the garden alone at night for hidden items but finds that she has crossed the line when she inadvertently loses a family heirloom. Whilst this may not ordinarily appear to be an extraordinary event, such incident is a catalyst within Martyrs Lane which threatens to unravel Leah’s family.

There are eerie whisperings heard by Leah throughout the house and combined with dark surroundings Platt successfully re-creates that haunted house sensation. Martyrs Lane just feels unsettling throughout with its unspoken terrors which Platt amplifies through an impressive performance by Kiera Thompson as Leah. Children are slightly more receptive towards viewing paranormal activity and that sensation of the unknown, experienced through Leah’s friendship with the unnamed girl that lives nearby, is unparalleled under Platt’s vision. Sienna Sayer’s portrayal as Leah’s mysterious friend quite simply gets under your skin, there is just something about her as she resembles a younger version of Kirsten Dunst’s role within Interview With The Vampire. Sayer’s depiction is equally cherubic and an innocent role but is a multi-faceted character prone to ‘bad thoughts’ as well. Her relationship with Leah is endearing to watch, however, as the two girls hide beneath the covers at night but the creepy elements of Martyrs Lane are omnipresent.

Reminiscent of Let The Right One In, with a focus on the supernatural from a child’s perspective and a blossoming friendship occurring under the auspices of fraught family relationships, Martyrs Lane is a chilling but subtle horror story. Many of the typical horror tropes are present with quick jump scares but most of the action is centred within the home. Martyrs Lane drip feeds the information to Leah and its audience as she embarks on her investigation and as more layers are revealed, it seems as though everyone in proximity has something to hide.

Kiera Thompson and Sienna Sayer
Kiera Thompson and Sienna Sayers in Martyrs Lane

The dynamics between the two young girls are charming to watch on the surface, as they play a nightly game, however some of the out of focus shots, such as a hand randomly creeping into Leah’s house at night, provide that instinctively chilling effect visually.  The cinematography is superb and Platt has achieved an impressively humane portrait of the long lasting impact of buried secrets and the ensuing devastation. Whilst Martyrs Lane is Leah’s story, the emotional effect to her family is slowly unveiled as stranger and stranger incidents occur and expose connections to the past. However, Leah’s ability to leave the house unseen at night and to wander outside alone are scary activities in themselves, as she is only 10, and Platt has therefore successfully highlighted the parental fear for children which reflects reality.

Martyrs Lane may embrace familiar horror tropes but its message has greater emotional resonance connected to the horrors of the mind and grief. The film explores the constructs that may be built through religion as coping strategies during moments of loss and utilises slow pacing for its reveal. It is a quietly devastating but nuanced film from a child’s perspective exploring the extent of a mother’s love for her children and that underlying impact of grief. Martyrs Lane is a soulful horror that will evoke both fear and sympathy with its heartbreaking denouement as it frays nerves but leaves that lasting poignant impact.

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