EIFF 2021 Review: Martyr’s Lane ★★★

Writer-director Ruth Platt brings Martyr’s Lane to the Edinburgh International Film Festival. The feature toys with religious iconography and cluttered domestic spaces, colliding them with sinister supernatural elements in this elegant albeit too-slight ghost story.

Ten year old Leah (Kiera Thompson) lives in a bustling vicarage frequented by the homeless and needy parishioners. Lacking any real attention from her parents and tormented by her older sister, Leah struggles to find her place in the family dynamic. Plagued with unsettling nightmares, she soon turns her focus to a mysterious locket around her mother’s neck containing a lock of blonde hair. The imminent arrival of a mischievous new friend in the late evenings, Rachel (Sienna Sayer), only adds to the building sense of unease.

Martyr’s Lane opens with Leah’s unsettling nightmare: she traipses through to her mother’s room drawn to the mysterious locket, extending her hand to reach it before her panic-stricken mother suddenly rises. It’s one of the few jump scares in Platt’s feature which emphasises atmosphere and a simmering sense of foreboding over sharp jump-scares. There are echoes of the likes of Salem’s Lot in the supernatural nightly visits, whilst recent religion centred horrors such as Saint Maud may spring to mind for some – despite this take a much more sedate approach to its horror than the latter,

Platt layers the film with religious iconography from the Middle Class English church setting (complete with interfering parishioners, hoping to steal any extra time with Leah’s vicar father) pairing this with the cluttered rural countryside house packed large ornate furniture, looming windows and high ceilings. Whilst these features are not traditional scary, Platt and cinematographer Márk Györi cleverly shoot the film to give ten year old Leah’s perspective of the large domestic setting (particularly one scene that sees Leah shakily climb kitchen furniture in the hope of reaching an item). During the light day time, Leah’s home is not one that strikes fear, but the evening isolation brings a unsettling unease and slow burning dread.

This tale of the vulnerable child befriending a ghost with sinister intentions feels like a familiar one and often the scenes between Leah and Rachel simply feel like the interactions between two normal ten year olds. Whilst this could be an uneasy move to capture Leah’s misguided trust, more could have been done to convey this. Martyr’s Lane is very restrained in its horror, opting for a slow-burn effect – despite that, familiar tropes do appear from nightmares to whispering voices in the middle of the night.

Thompson is an impressive force on-screen. The young actress remains a watchable and engaging lead – tapping into the subtle emotions of a child hungry for the attention of her parents, yet plucky and adventurous enough to briefly navigate life without it. Some of the strongest moments in the film are when she taps into her inquisitive side – often neglectful of the dangers that could come with this, resulting in her being an endearing young protagonist.

Slightly too slow-burning and mellow to provide any real scares, and following an expected narrative trajectory, Martyr’s Lane is a semi-effective watch. An impressive leading turn from Thompson and an atmosphere of unease will ensure that Ruth Platt’s feature does have its admirers.

Martyr’s Lane plays as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. More details here.