Grief can make monsters of us all, and writer-director Ruth Platt’s ghost story Martyrs Lane explores the ways that we fail each other when we allow loss to consume us. A gothic horror story told through the eyes of a young girl, the film works best when viewed as a family drama. Viewers expecting terror or a riveting mystery won’t find either here. Instead, they will find a quiet, elegiac, and ultimately rewarding tale about the power of the truth and the importance of focusing on the living rather than the dead.
Leah (Kiera Thompson) lives in a vicarage with her distant mother Sarah (Denise Gough), her doting but busy father Thomas (Steven Cree), and her bullying sister Bex (Hannah Rae). One day, while taking a shortcut that Bex claims is haunted, Leah meets a young girl (Sienna Sayer) who begins visiting her at night to play games and tell secrets. The girl sends Leah on a scavenger hunt of sorts, and each time Leah finds a new item, she discovers that it somehow distresses her mother. Leah has always felt that something at home wasn’t quite right, though, so she presses on despite her mother’s odd reactions and her new friend’s increasingly frightening appearance.
The central mystery in Martyrs Lane isn’t much of a mystery, though that makes the emotional depths that much more devastating. As the viewer puts the pieces together well before Leah has collected them all, we reassess the family dynamic and gain compassion for characters who felt like pure villains in earlier scenes. Even if we may judge some of them for their actions, we gain a better understanding of the complicated and moving reasons behind them. The film goes to the ‘jump scare within a dream’ well a few times too often, but it excels at gothic chills, managing to breathe fresh life into ghostly horror tropes with a canny — and heartbreaking — evolution of its supernatural character.
The highlight of the film is in its lead performance. Thompson’s Leah is an affecting character study of a young girl dealing with a broken family and trying to figure out where all the missing pieces have gone. Forced to become wise beyond her years by trauma and neglect, Leah still manages to remain childlike, navigating each new emotional blow with sensitivity and grace and giving viewers the perfect vantage point for this story about lost innocence. The quality of a film like Martyrs Lane hinges on the capability of its child actors, and Thompson proves herself more than up to the task.
The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Márk Györi. When the viewer isn’t watching the mysterious little girl appear through diaphanous, moonlit drapes in eerie scenes that feel both angelic and foreboding, the film seems to be perpetually set in the late afternoon. Sunlight streams in at the perfect angle through the windows of the church and the vicarage to caress the characters’ strained, desperate faces. Opening scenes of Leah wandering through a cemetery set an ethereal tone. In one particularly lovely shot, a spiderweb blows in the breeze as it sits, fragile yet strong, between two trees. It’s a perfect metaphor for Leah herself, and for the family bonds she so desperately tries to mend.
Platt has crafted an engrossing gothic tale in Martyrs Lane. The film has plenty of ghostly chills, but what makes it linger is its portrait of a devastated family and the ways they heal — or run — from that devastation. With beautiful cinematography and a strong lead performance, this quietly moving story gently proves that life is for the living and secrets never stay buried for long.