Martyrs Lane. 2021. Directed & Written by Ruth Platt.
Starring Denise Gough, Kiera Thompson, Steven Cree, Sienna Sayer, & Hannah Rae.
BFI / Ipso Facto Productions / Sharp House
Not Rated / 96 minutes
Drama / Horror
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains SPOILERS!
Each of Ruth Platt’s films, in one way or another, deal with an aspect of families and the relationships within them. Her latest film Martyrs Lane takes a Gothic approach to families, depicting the revelation of old, buried secrets through the eyes of a child whose young life becomes complicated by the things about which her parents refuse to speak. Platt’s screenplay intertwines the Gothic with religion as her young protagonist grapples with death in the only way they’ve learned how: religious faith. Half of what we get in this film is a perspective on the difficulties a child encounters while trying to comprehend the profound event of death. The other half is a look at how hanging onto the past yet never openly confronting it can destroy a person, as well as their family.
The story centres on ten-year-old Leah (Kiera Thompson). She lives in a vicarage with her father Thomas (Steven Cree), her mother Sarah (Denise Gough), and her sister Bex (Hannah Rae). Their big house is eerie at best, and it’s all the worse at night, when Leah hears strange noises in the pipes. One evening, Leah receives a visit from a little girl called Rachel (Sienna Sayer) who wears a pair of tattered, lopsided angel wings. Her tiny visitor becomes a friend, but eventually she starts to see there’s much more to Rachel and why the girl keeps coming back at night.
Hebrews 13:2 becomes an important symbol within the film. The passage reads: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Hebrews 13:2 appears as a sign on a door in the vicarage, and its message is the foundation of the film’s plot, once we discover Rachel is, for lack of a better term, a ghostly angel. The Biblical reference is one thing, illustrating how Leah’s concept of death is entirely informed by religion. Then there’s the fact the little nighttime visitor goes from angelic to more of a Gothic ghost as the film wears on, speaking to the religious confusion of a young girl like Leah trying to figure out the difference, if there is any, between angels and ghosts.
There’s another great inclusion in Platt’s screenplay that touches on the connections between religion and ghosts during a scene in which Bex takes Leah on a trail her little sister isn’t used to taking. When Leah questions why they never take that particular path she gets a response from her big sister: “Ghosts.” Bex explains how Henry VIII sent soldiers to ransack monasteries like the one near the vicarage; this is in reference to the suppression of the monasteries in the 16th century. Not only is Leah embedded in a Gothic history pertaining to her own family, she and her family are similarly embedded in the Gothic history of the land and the church itself, too.
The most affecting aspect of Platt’s Martyrs Lane is its portrayal of Gothic grief. The mother Sarah keeps a locket with a curl of hair in it and Leah also keeps her own Gothic box of trinkets, in which she starts to piece together her mother’s history of grief. The first appearance of Rachel follows Leah stealing the hair from her mother’s locket; the first step on her Gothic journey towards the truth. In the grounds around Leah’s home in the vicarage she starts to physically unearth items that lead her further towards her family’s secrets. Bex warns her little sister not to keep digging, telling Leah: “Just bury it deep in the ground and never think about it again.” Sadly it’s exactly this process of denial that’s put Leah’s family in the situation it’s in, cementing Sarah and the rest of the family in a perpetual state of grief.
The film ultimately deals with the price of grief and an inability to move forward from a past of painful memories, specifically through Sarah and how she simultaneously continuously grieves but also refuses to genuinely confront her past trauma. The way Sarah doesn’t allow herself, or the family, to move on keeps them all in a state of purgatory where they’re all being tortured in their own ways. It’s also hard not to see echoes of John Milton’s Paradise Lost in how Rachel goes from angel to demon. Rachel, like Satan in Paradise Lost, is essentially cast out by her parents; after her death she’s all but literally buried, though her presence haunts Sarah specifically. She, again like Milton’s Satan, goes from an angelic form in the beginning of the film to her more demonic form near the end, representing the rot of grief and how it wears away not only at the grieving person, or people, but the memory of the person they’re grieving.
Platt’s film is an emotional ride through Gothicism and religion, by way of grief’s universality; something everybody understands to a degree. The story’s focus on Leah as the protagonist makes a familiar tale all the more poignant and sentimental. The film also never tries to make any of the adults too likeable, particularly Denise Gough’s Sarah, whose grieving nearly consumes her entire being to the detriment of everyone around her; an honest depiction of how death and grief can warp somebody irreparably. Although it’s Kiera Thompson as Leah who keeps the audience’s attention and anchors the viewer to a sad, tragic, though occasionally beautiful story.
Martyrs Lane doesn’t reinvent the wheel of Gothic horror, yet it employs Gothic imagery, alongside religious concepts, in a way we don’t always see in the horror genre. There’s a spirituality to Platt’s film, in that it doesn’t try to necessarily criticise religion but uses religious ideas to augment the Gothic elements, going back to the genre’s very roots. Most importantly, Martyrs Lane tells an impassioned story about how secrets and grief can set in like a disease, and after a while they spread from one person to another until an entire family’s infected, unless people are able to reconcile the painful emotions of their past with their present life.