“Martyrs Lane,” the third feature from Ruth Platt (“The Lesson”), hits Fantasia with a double momentum: Bullish word of mouth, and a recent sale to AMC Networks genre streamer Shudder for North America, U.K., Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
Produced by London’s Ipso Facto Productions, whose credits take in “Irina Palm” and Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Valhalla Rising,” the LevelK sales title is a ghost story but, like the best of that kind, much more.
Leah, 10, lives in a rambling vicarage with her parents and haughty older sister. But something’s very wrong. Her mother, who sleeps clasping a golden locket, hardly has any time for her. One morning, Leah spots the locket left on the bathroom shelf. She opens it, and steals what she finds inside, sparking the nightly visits of a cherubic looking little girl, sporting shabby angel wings.
“Martyr’s Lane” is described as an unsettling ghost story about a young girl’s journey into her deepest fear, that her mother doesn’t love her.
A Fantasia world premiere, it stars Denise Gough (“The Good Traitor”), Steven Cree (“Outlaw King”) and newcomers Kiera Thompson and Sienna Sayer. Christine Alderson and Katie Hodgkin produce for Ipso Facto Productions. “Martyrs Lane” was developed and financed by the BFI, Lipsync, and Sharp House. Variety talked to “Martyrs Lane” writer-director Platt in the build-up to the film’s Fantasia debut.
Though set at an English vicarage, “Martyrs Lane” forms part, I sense, of the magnificent humanistic tradition of family relationship-driven films such as Victor Erice’s “The Spirit of the Beehive” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which turn on a child’s misunderstanding of grief and the withdrawal or absence of parents….
Those films – and I’d add “The Devil’s Backbone” and “The Orphanage” – are precisely for me very much alive and massive influences on the film. “The Spirit of the Beehive” is one of my favorite films. In terms of influence, there are two things: One, a child piecing together things – adults’ secrets, taboos and difficult emotions – that they’re not privy to, through the lens of their own imagination, Then there’s the theme of domestic family relationships, seen through the lens of genre and from a child’s point of view.
“Martyrs Lane” is also a slightly Gothic English ghost story….
I’ve always been very passionate about ghost stories in literature and the mystery genre. Ghosts are metaphors for something that’s suppressed or hidden that’s very human, metaphors for trauma. That might be big, more collective trauma such as the Spanish Civil War backdrop in del Toro’s films, or slightly more domestic, somewhat more personal trauma, as in “Martyr’s Lane.”
They’re an ambiguity in Leah’s actions. She senses, subconsciously, that something’s missing, but her attempts to find out what threaten tragedy.
Sarah, the mother, is suppressing so much in order to function, to be part off the ministry and look out for Leah and the people she needs to help, be part of that sacrifice. But her trauma doesn’t go away. The more she suppresses, the bigger it becomes. That’s what’s so interesting about the ghost tradition: They’re like children, demanding to be seen, as is Leah herself.
As a director, what were your priorities?
The house became a character in itself. It’s like Leah’s a little ghost, rattling around the house, as she’s rattling around her mother’s brain. My idea was that the mother’s conscious brain is the downstairs – busy, bustling, light-filled, lots of distractions – and upstairs is the subconscious – dark, empty, quiet, silent, where nightmares slip in. Also, the children had to do quite a lot of tightly scripted work, but I tried to get as much freedom from them as I could, that they didn’t feel they had to ‘perform.’
The downstairs vicarage scenes feel highly authentic……
I grew up in a vicarage as a small child. The film’s fictional, but there’s a lot of energy from childhood that’s personal. I had terrible, terrible nightmares, overhearing tales of exorcism, and with visits from strangers in the middle of the night. That allows your imagination to run riot. It was a very, very visceral and very present part of my childhood.
Do you feel part of any British auteur genre tradition?
There is a tradition. Some fantastic films are coming out. They’re very stylish, ironic and cinematic but hold emotions at something of a distance. They don’t allow emotions to really inhabit a film like the Spanish titles you mentioned. In that I do, I feel like something of an outsider.