Martyrs Lane, from U.K. writer-director Ruth Platt — an expansion of her 2019 short film — is a supernatural mystery told from the point of view of a child. The film pieces itself together slowly, telegraphing its conclusion far earlier to the viewer than to its protagonist. However, having a good idea of where the story is heading doesn’t detract too much from its impact, nor the atmospheric route it takes to get there.
Since the entire movie hinges on the children in Martyrs Lane, it helps a lot that they are so well-cast: Kiera Thompson plays Leah, a lonely 10-year-old girl prone to nightmares and asthma attacks, and Sienna Sayer is her mysterious new friend, who’s around her age but only appears at night and is always wearing a grubby pair of angel wings.
The angel costume is significant because Leah — who’s the daughter of the local vicar and lives in a shadowy old house that practically has a sign on it that says “Ghosts Welcome,” — is surrounded by religious iconography in her daily life. Early in the film, she takes note of a sign quoting a Bible verse urging the importance of being kind to strangers, “for by doing so, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
Leah’s new friend — who’s fond of tap-tap-tapping at Leah’s window, begging to come in and complaining about how cold she is — is potentially angelic at first, or at least it seems that way to a kid in desperate need of a friend. There are apparently no other children around, and Leah’s teenaged sister, Bex (Hannah Rae), prefers to communicate through the medium of relentless, borderline-cruel teasing.
While Leah’s father, Father Thomas (Steven Cree) is kind, he’s busy with his work, which often involves counseling members of his flock who show up at the house sobbing for a blessing. Meanwhile, Leah’s mother Sarah (Denise Gough) drifts around wearing the expression of someone haunted not by ghosts, but by still-unresolved feelings about Something Very Bad that happened in her past. We frequently see Sarah framed in the round reflection of her bedroom mirror, an effective use of mise-en-scène that almost makes her look like a religious icon — a choice that ties not only into Martyrs Lane’s backdrop of the vicarage but also the movie’s title.
Another bit of mise-en-scène that works well: the billowy curtains that shield Leah’s bedroom windows, as if dressing a stage for a supernatural grand entrance. Leah doesn’t know what her mother’s painful secret is, but Martyrs Lane is full of enough hints and foreshadowing that we have no trouble guessing. One big clue is that Sarah wears a locket whose contents so fascinate Leah that she steals it to discover… a curl of blonde hair, which she promptly fumbles away, then feels agonizing guilt when she sees how upset her mother is over the loss.
Her self-proclaimed guardian angel — who is very fond of the guessing game “two truths and a lie” — starts giving her hints on where certain lost things might be found in the house and garden. But instead of the missing hair, Leah prowls around and finds a perplexing array of other things: a dish full of baby teeth, a button that’s long been missing from her mother’s favourite sweater, and a series of small beads with letters on them that start to spell out “L-E-A-H.”
While the viewer will figure out the identity of Leah’s strange, ethereal visitor fairly early on, it comes as a huge shock to Leah — and to Sarah, too, once she realises the reason behind her daughter’s recent streak of odd behaviour. The psychic pain emanating from Sarah is incredibly powerful; the most uncertain element in Martyrs Lane is whether or not she’ll be able to face her grief enough to overcome it, or at least set some kind of overdue healing in motion.
Unfortunately, when Sarah finally does confront her trauma, Martyrs Lane attempts a pivot into full-scale horror that doesn’t quite work, and ultimately leads the story to an ambiguous finale. Perhaps that’s intended as a comment on how the grieving process evolves rather than ends — entirely valid and thematically appropriate. But it’s not exactly cathartic.
Martyrs Lane hits Shudder on September 9.