10-year-old Leah is a curious, quiet child, living in a vicarage household. Her nightly nightmares surrounding her mother’s necklace locket and her mother’s stern conduct along with her constant obsession with her necklace locket leads Leah into an interest in the ornament’s contents. Inside is a lock of hair and Leah takes it and loses a day later, sending her mother into a tailspin of anxiety. That same night, a little girl knocks on Leah’s window and provides Leah momentary comfort and friendship until every visit after that, the little girl grows sicker and more ominously enigmatic in her play, providing clues and the whereabouts of thought-lost items that will open up the truth about the mystery girl’s identity as well as her family’s dark secret.
“Martyrs Lane” is a thoughtful and empathetic drama with supernatural delicacies surrounding complexities in loss and grief of bottled-up family secrets. The British film is the third feature film, second in horror, for actress-writer-director Ruth Platt (“The Lesson”) who has commented that “Martyrs Lane” is a plucking of aggregated events from her own childhood woven into the very fabric of the story. Platt’s 2021 release is a fined tune extension upon her 2019 short of the same title that recasts the core principal roles from original actresses Indica Watson, Phoebe Lloyd, and the live action adaptation of “Beauty and The Beast’s” Hattie Morahan and turned the short into a 96 minute closed book feature about a scrutinized and consuming locket and a slowly decaying little girl playing two truths, one lie with the main character during bedtime hours who then has to unravel the mystery behind it all. Ipso Facto Productions’ Christine Alderson, who also produced “Valhalla Rising,” “Alpha Alert,” and even Platt’s original short film, produces “Martyrs Lane” alongside Katie Hodgkin and partly funded by the British Film Institute (BFI) in association with Sharp Films, Lypsync, and LevelK.
Recasting the short’s linchpin framework actresses took an audition to bring to light exactly the kind of talent Platt needed to express the different levels of somber ambivalence toward a family obviously struggling to deal with something more than just the day-to-day tasks. Kiere Thompson took over for Indica Watson as Leah in her feature performance debut and Thompson smashes a complex role and gains high marks on the voyeur scorecard as the youngest child who watches as her mother ebbs and flows in various states of anxiety while serving a milder, yet vastly different, dish of dynamics with the levity being around her vicar father and to be always primed to deal with her tormenting much older sister Bex (Hannah Rae). The best chemistry is between Thompson and age-appropriate counterpart Sienna Sayer, taking over Phoebe Lloyd’s role from the short as the strange visiting little girl. You can see two youngsters’ genuine play and natural innocence come through their smiling faces, wide eyes, and contagious giggles and when the winch of fear washes over them, called for by the story’s puzzling rising of events, mirthless moments are quickly produced, snapping us back into Platt’s eerie cold quandary. Hattie Morahan is replaced by Denise Gough as the mother Sarah and though her performance is fine, there just wasn’t enough of the mother’s side of the story to evoke a sense of empathy or sympathy and ultimately just falls into right into apathy even though Sarah is a pivotal piece to the theme. Catherine Terris, Charlie Rix, Donna Banya, Anastasia Hille, and Steven Cree as the vicar and Leah’s father rounds out the cast.
A blend between “Let the Right One In” and “The Babadook” but with less blood and less malevolent atmospherics, “Martyrs Lane” offers an imposing exhumation of a secret told in a way that doesn’t carry the sensation of something being hidden from Leah or even the audience in general. Instead, Platt invests into the thematic subtleties with the bigger picture on the supernatural element of a strange, orphaned girl who knocks on the outside of Leah’s second story window, wearing dress up angel wings and is slowly deteriorating health wise with each passing night. Yet, despite her appearance and reluctance at times, Leah’s peculiarly drawn to opening her window, letting her in, and even play childish games with her and tell jokes but soon those games become clues, near riddle-like, for Leah to push the envelope that link her mother, the locket, and this strange girl together. Platt tacks on a silent and tenebrous after-hours backdrop during Leah’s sleepless nights and the stillness is greatly encroaching upon into the terror senses that you find yourself holding your breath and jumping at the breakneck editing aimed to momentarily scare you until a sigh of relief for when it’s over. “Martyrs Lane” is externally melancholic and mood driven from outside Leah’s perspective as she, herself, internalizes and absorbs the emotions of others, studies them, and puts the pieces together to unravel the truth.
Ruth Platt’s “Martyrs Lane” is a wistful, and often eerie, entry into the creepy child subgenre. UK distributor, Acorn Media International, releases the Shudder exclusive-streaming film onto a PAL encoded region 2 DVD. Presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio, there’s virtually no issues with the compression as even the night sequences retain the thick and obscuring black levels with almost unnoticeable banding, and it’s a clean dark too with balanced contrast to really home in on and define the shadows. Details and textures are good for Platt’s dreamy-presented cinematic approach of slight overexposure and blur are more a stylistic attribute than an issue with the imagery. I liked the tactile details in the loose strands of hair around Leah and the mystery girl that plays on their differences, and sometimes similarities, really well. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound retains no significant issues. Dialogue track perceives slightly muted or distant in some scenes and clarity, though free from audio blemishes, can be straining. English subtitles are available. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes with snippets of interviews from Ruth Platt and the cast, an interview with Ruth Platt (which contains the same segments pulled for the behind-the-scenes), and a behind-the-scenes photo gallery. The Acorn DVD is certified 15 for strong supernatural threat and injury detail. In the end, “Martyrs Lane” is a dead-end road to melancholy, a family-affecting affair that peripherally chronicles not only one person’s struggle to maintain a slither of normalcy but also profoundly hits innocent youth who know nothing of the skeletons kept in the closet.