Martyrs Lane review – gothic supernatural mystery with a warm beating heart

Leah (Kiera Thompson) feels like a stranger in her own house. Home for the 10-year-old is a Victorian vicarage, but it is not a place of comfort. Her morose mum Sarah (Denise Gough) berates her when she comes back with a cake from the parishioners; her dad Thomas (Steven Cree) is constantly busy with his flock. Snatches of distraught parental conversation seem to lodge in the house’s nooks. Leah is fixated with a golden locket her mother always wears, and she starts feeling flashes of a ghostly presence near the windows. Then a ringletted little girl with lopsided angel wings (Sienna Sayer) begins visiting her every night. Huddled under bedsheets, the pair play a game, Two Truths One Lie, bound to produce revelations.

This is a supernatural mystery set in fusty parish England rather than pure horror – though its visual vocabulary becomes increasingly gothic as it progresses; Ruth Platt’s third film is at first almost too subtle for its own good. As Leah’s new friend directs her to small objects around the house and grounds, including minuscule letter-bearing dice, Platt’s storytelling is high-risk, almost obscure, leaving viewers much to infer. Partly it’s because it is told from the point of view of a child with a tactile fetish for trinkets; but it actually means Martyrs Lane is highly atmospheric, a diaphanous world of billowing curtains, lamplight circles and luminous stained glass.

The film coheres quietly, thanks in no small part to the two excellent child performances. The serious-faced Thompson is curt, almost distrustful with adults, while Sayer’s more informal, estuary tones suit the invading entity egging her pal on. But they aren’t creepy children à la The Shining and, though it’s probably not suitable for younger kids, a benevolent hand guides Martyrs Lane. In the words of the biblical quotation Leah repeats: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some people have shown hospitality to angels”. Platt nearly blows that gentle precept in search of an emphatic ending – but love and care light up this maternal-minded fairytale.

Martyrs Lane is available on Shudder on 9 September

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