By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
It’s not a film of huge landscapes and unusual settings…. I wanted to build this world of small things, small truths, details, a sensory landscape that makes sense for this child.”
Even for those of us with little connection to formal religion, especially as children when lost in the world of our own tiny rituals and superstitions, spiritual significance can be placed in material objects with a reverence and sincerity that would make the Pope blush. The lead character of Ruth Platt’s Martyrs Lane, Leah (Kiera Thompson) is the ten-year-old daughter of a vicar, and while raised in a household where the Church dominates, this more secular tendency towards object-based reverence is the ruling factor as she curates her tiny box of precious treasures. Using these objects to make sense of her world – one that doesn’t make sense – Leah adds to it throughout the film with the guidance of a supernatural presence, who seeks to reveal secrets to the young child her family have long denied sharing with her.
Martyrs Lane is a ghost story about a child who hungers for the love of her disconnected, distant mother Sarah (Denise Gough), but more broadly is about the nightmare world where adults exclude children from important truths and leaving them on their own to conjure up their own systems of meaning with whatever riff-raff they can fit in their little treasure chest. Leah’s father Thomas (Steven Cree) is kind but distracted, and her older sister Bex (Hannah Rae) – about to leave for university – is both a bully and a buffer between Leah and the adult world that has excluded her. With the arrival of an angel-winged ghostly apparition of her own age (played by Sienna Sayer), Leah finally has an ally. But does her newfound friend have her own agenda?
With its recent world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival and soon to hit horror streaming service Shudder on 9 September, Martyrs Lane marks the third feature of British actor-turned-filmmaker Platt after The Lesson (2015) and the drama The Black Forest (2019). While The Black Forest revealed Platt’s ability to move across different genres, with her impressive debut The Lesson – like Martyrs Lane – Platt was very much working in a horror milieu. And yet even these two films are strikingly different, The Lesson a visceral horror film about a bullied school teacher who decides to fight back, and Martyrs Lane dominated instead by a more explicit gothic sensibility. Familiar to audiences for her role as an actor in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), Platt’s turn to working behind the camera began with shorts including Stealing Up (2005) and The Heart Fails Without Warning (2013), and while very different films, all three of her features in some way reflect her experience working as a teacher. Platt kindly took the time to talk to us about this, Martyrs Lane, and many other things aside.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas: Even from the film’s opening moments, I was struck quite dramatically by the overwhelming tactility of the film, whether it’s cobwebs or tombstones, even from the start it feels like such a haptic provocation. This was clearly very conscious, and the moments when Leah is looking through her fingers especially I was reminded of a great article by Vivian Sobchack called “What My Fingers Knew” where she talks about a similar moment at the very beginning of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) – she really focuses on the idea of a kind of bodily knowledge or reading skills that transcend our intellect and jack straight into our senses. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these really textural qualities of this film, they feel so central to what you strive to do here.
Ruth Platt: I’m so glad you picked up on this – and love that phrase ‘haptic provocation’. It’s not a film of huge landscapes and unusual settings – it’s a film about small things – scaled down to a child’s eye view, where the world is not unusual because of its geography but because of the perception of the small protagonist. I wanted to build this world of small things, small truths, details, a sensory landscape that makes sense for this child. Everything takes place in this one house, and Leah is a little scavenger – a scavenger of adult truths, of her mother’s love, and when those things aren’t available to her, a scavenger of little treasures – nothing valuable – but small things that she intuits somehow have meaning, and have more meaning when gathered, as if the knowledge (via the emotional significance of them to certain others) they represent grows. And the tactility of all the objects is very important – their age, their feel, the worn, rubbed gold of the locket, endlessly turned over between the fingers, a dead dragonfly, an old, hollow baby tooth. [Art Director] May Davies and I, when we were making test footage, talked about the thickness and quality of the sheet that the girls hide under, its colour, the feel of it, and how it would cast shadows of them from the torch underneath. And what Leah sees of the adult world is viewed through cracks in doors, down corridors, set apart from her, so she craves the sensory immediacy of these little tactile clues, and of her own subconscious – her conjuring of this little guest, seen, by us, through her hands at this moment as you mention. And of course, when you are writing from the point of view of a child, memory and nostalgia can’t help but come into play. So I used the textural details from my own childhood, a bit like a bit like Proust’s Madeleine I guess.
This idea of world building more broadly feels so important to Martyrs Lane, I love the sense of scale of how Leah is physically shown to be moving through the adult world, and how different those scenes are shot when she is with The Ghost Girl (whose name I will not reveal here, the revelation of which is so fundamental to the film’s story!). The film seems really consciously focused on her learning to negotiate those spaces, both literally as a small person, but also more symbolically. What are your reflections on this more generally, and how did these more thematic qualities come together with the technical elements of filmmaking?
So I had in my head that this house was a metaphor for the mother’s brain. That the downstairs was busy, peopled, public, and full of outward facing distractions, and the upstairs was a private space, quiet, dark, empty – where the dreams and nightmares creep in. And Leah is negotiating that space. She is like a little living ghost, rattling around, observing – we made her wear dark clothes against dark walls – camouflaged, unseen, but listening, watching, imagining. But she knows the spaces intimately. She’s inquisitive. She watches through the light from the door crack, or when there is someone coming through the front door from upstairs, or from her bedroom window into the garden. The way she negotiates her distance from others, and uses it to her advantage, in the knowledge that she has become invisible, motivates the emotional logic of the film, and makes her a mirror to the little nightly visitor – they are both unseen, and want to be seen – but they both want something that the other has.
I hesitate a little with this question as I don’t want to be reductive – I think your work is far too complex for that – but across your three features, in different ways, this idea of a kind of schism between the adult world and that of young people and children feels really crucial. How do you see this generational tension linked across your work, or indeed, is it distinctly unlinked?
That’s a really interesting question! I think that definitely is a theme running throughout my work. It also caught my interest in my adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s short story “The Heart Fails Without Warning,” where there the teenage girl manifests her anorexia as a way of being heard in the adult world, and as a way of being provocative and non-compliant. It’s not that I think generational tension is inevitable or unavoidable. But I have vivid memories of my childhood – being a small child usually surrounded by much older people – my parents were older parents, my siblings much older than me, and that formed my character in a specific way. And now as a mother and a teacher, observing how certain children are unheard in the school environment, and how many children adapt to that environment by unconsciously mimicking what the adults want to see in a performative way just as a mode of survival (particularly girls) and if you don’t, you’re really in trouble. You have to write what you know – and I think I know a bit about that, and find it fascinating.
As a recovering Mean Older Sister™ I was fascinated by the character of Bex and Hannah Rae’s really authentic portrayal of the bully older sibling but who has a hidden sort of protector role between the world of adult secrets and that of what, for Leah at least, is a kind of enforced ignorance about her family’s history based solely on her age. Can you talk me through the character of Bex in particular?
Bex has done what I mentioned above – she’s mimicked unconsciously what the adults do and want to see in her, as a means of survival. She has not talked about anything that happened. She has learned, from an early age, when a bad thing happened, that it is best not to talk about it – because she knows, subconsciously, that it is an emotional Pandora’s Box for the adults around her. She knows somehow that it is very, very dangerous to even mention it. So she has suppressed it, since she was quite small, and that has taken its toll on her in a different way. She’s tough, she thinks. She’s provocative and difficult and non-conforming and, like Leah and her little visitor, vying for attention, but in a very different way.
And of course, we have Kiera Thompson, who I know I won’t be the first to say is the soul of the film. It’s a breathtaking performance, and I absolutely love your adamant rejection of the fetishization of childhood in this film – there’s such humanity and compassion and respect for children and their far too often ignored complexities in Leah especially. I know you come from an acting background yourself, but how on earth do you collaborate with such a young child to produce such an extraordinary performance?
I’m really happy to hear that! I guess it stems from my interest in the way adults unconsciously mould children into their own image (be it via parenting or education or religion) You know, the Romantics talked endlessly about the ‘mind-forged manacles’ (Blake, London) of adulthood, and how the memories from childhood, and how one sees the world as a child, before the adult layers or routine and restriction fall, is somehow redemptive and transcendent. And of course, a bit of that’s true but it is also a bit ego centric and idealised, because childhood can be painful and a bit shit.
In acting, I’ve worked as a peripatetic drama teacher for several years as well as loads of other casual work when my kids were small and I couldn’t get anyone in the industry to look at me, and I realised, there are some dreadful drama teachers around. Eyes and teeth and putting on a performance, that kind of thing. There are loads of great drams teachers too, but my interest is in working with children and teenagers in the same way as I worked and trained as an actor myself – what are you thinking at this moment? Empathy is the act of using your imagination to put yourself in the situation of someone else – and that is what you need to be a good actor too. So really, it’s all about nurturing empathy and emotional intelligence, and giving the child freedom and space (with safe boundaries) to explore that, without the pressure of ‘performance’.
Finding Kiera and Sienna, who were just completely themselves and not trying to be someone else, and tapping into those qualities, what they could bring to the roles of their own personalities – Kiera’s quiet strength and curiosity, Sienna’s capriciousness and playful mischievousness – and their chemistry together, their emotional intelligence, just observing those qualities and letting them shine, as well as focusing on the truth of each thought, in each line was the key really, and they just got it and ran with it.
It’s a very general point of reference, but your own acting background and strong skills in directing children reminded me at one point of Jennifer Kent and The Babadook (2014) –she too was an actor-turned-filmmaker, and also shares your capacity to really collaborate in a remarkable way with young actors. Similarly – again, while they are obviously very different films – I was reminded of The Babadook in Martyrs Lane also in how it teases out the nuance of the monstrous mother cliche. Both films, at their heart, are about children and mothers who struggle to connect, which in a broader cultural sense is more deviant or unacceptable than the more excessive, over the top wicked stepmother type cliches regarding monstrous motherhood. How did you approach the character of Sarah, and was Denise Gough always who you had in mind for the role? (I can’t imagine anyone else playing Sarah!)
I guess the great canon of cinema until very recently, has mostly been made by men, so motherhood has been seen through a rather narrow lens for a rather long time – that of sons remembering their mothers. Mothers have often been either idealised (nurturing and self-sacrificing) or demonized completely, (controlling, mad) through a hell of a lot of films. I love the mother in The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) because she’s neither of those things – and Regan (Linda Blair) is obviously one hell of a non-conforming, troublesome, doctor-defeating teenage girl, who’s also picking up on the adult difficulties in the world around her, and voicing an unusual protest, and her mother (Ellen Burstyn) isn’t wholly good or bad – she loves her daughter but struggles to know how to help her, and is a flawed, though well-meaning character.
And The Babadook too – that longing and struggle to be a good mother – the enormous pressure of being that figure for a child, not just practically in terms of finding enough money to bring another human being up, but emotionally, psychologically – and things that happen to other people happen to mothers too. The mother/child relationship is such a potent area for genre because it is our very first, and arguably most pivotal relationship and helps to form who we are and how we see the world. And I needed someone who wasn’t scared of inhabiting a complex mother character, who is oblique to us for some of the film and not instantly explained. Denise wasn’t afraid of that, and though I didn’t always have her in mind for the role, it was clear early on that she had a quality that was so interesting for that role, and works so viscerally on screen.
I’m fascinated by the idea of ritual and the relic in Martyrs Lane. In the case of the latter, the contents of Sarah’s locket are the most literal example of the latter, perhaps, but there’s something so intriguing about the focus on objects and the symbolic power we bestow on them that really runs through this film – whether its glow-in-the-dark Mary statuettes or Leah’s box of treasures, there’s a real emphasis on materiality and an often hard-to-verbalize intensity of meaning that is located within them. What inspired this through-line in the film?
I guess these small things were so much of Leah’s world – her eye on detail, on accruing stuff (without material value but with, as she seems to know on some level, contain emotional value). She’s gathering objects like a small emotionally deprived magpie. And iconography and sacred objects were part of my childhood; I was Anglican but loved all the Roman Catholic iconography – rosaries, icons, statues, little bottles of holy water – I mean when God is so absent it is really great to have something physical to hold onto I guess as God by proxy! Leah takes this further into seemingly meaningless, secular objects, that resonate with something she can’t quite decipher yet – emotions by proxy, love by proxy. There is also of course the mother symbolism with the Virgin Mary statues, and how she is the ideal mother in the Western tradition – long suffering, self-sacrificing, ever-present, and ever-silent.
Without revealing too much about where the film goes, I have been toying over the film’s title endlessly since I first saw it. What drew you to this clearly very central idea of martyrdom?
My parents’ ministry I guess! The idea of sacrifice (of one’s life through the work you do, rather than the idea of actually dying for one’s religion) was a something I heard a lot about growing up. There’s the story of Abraham who is asked by God to sacrifice his much-loved son, Isaac. And he is going to do it, without question, to prove his love for God. He gets interrupted by an Angel, thankfully. But there was that idea, that one’s family is an extension of that sacrifice, when you commit your life to God, that I could see running through my mother’s own childhood – her parents also ran a busy and outward facing ministry in East London – and my own parents.’ And it’s just such a central tenet of Faith – how much must you sacrifice personally when pledging your life to God? And all the stories of Saints who were actual martyrs, being killed when refusing to convert, etc, there is an interesting thread of non-compliance there too – refusing to adopt the status-quo.
I mean, I’m an atheist but so many aspects of religion will never leave me – I’m sad not to experience that all-encompassing faith and trust in something bigger than yourself, something/someone is supposed to love you unconditionally. The sacred music, the transcendent moments that come with that whole interaction with Faith, with the Mystery. I miss it!
I really fell in love with your films through The Lesson, of which this is of course a very different film by comparison although both loosely fall under the genre umbrella of horror. Aside from the quality and impact of the film itself, I really loved that your focus on male characters and masculinity really challenged the almost paralyzingly dull assumption that women filmmakers are somehow implicitly duty bound to tell stories about girls and women (“women’s stories” all far too often synonymous with “stories about women”). I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I am going to hazard a guess that you might just perhaps look forward to the day where you are not asked questions like this, just as much as I look forward to the day that we live in a world where I don’t feel they need to be asked, but things being what they are at this stage at least – especially in what is so very much still the boys club of horror – I would love to hear your thoughts on gender and authorship more broadly, but specifically when it comes to genres like horror that are traditionally male-dominated?
Yes, this is very interesting. I pitched something recently where a man’s unravelling is the core of the story, and the woman was very present in the film, but again more oblique – you aren’t sure if she is avenger or victim. And the reaction was that the woman should be the main focus. Men have been making films about women forever. And it’s about power, I guess. I feel broadly speaking when men make films about women they are doing so from the perspective and experience, not always unconscious, but often so, of greater power, and therefore the women characters don’t always feel completely whole. And if they are whole, the male director gets lauded like it’s an extraordinary thing. It’s important to not make the same mistake the other way around – to filter male characters always through the idea of their ‘privilege’ – because that doesn’t make them whole either.
Examining power relationships is often an engine of the story in genre, and so masculinity, and toxic masculinity and a whole canon of horror films that have been made about that solely through the male lens, is really fascinating and fertile ground for ‘outsiders’ – i.e. women! But I definitely think the industry would have woken up more to The Lesson (originally called Dead White Men, a play on the authors of literature that the teacher ‘teaches’, and the death count in the film) had the teacher been played by a woman, so from a commercial point of view making Gale (Robert Hands) a man might have been a mistake!
Women still have to prove themselves in genre by going against gendered expectations – so by getting their female characters to do things that go against gendered expectations, that is what people want to see from women film makers. There are many great films that do that – but it is a pigeon-hole for women in genre all the same.
Martyrs Lane will be released on Shudder on 9 September.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has published widely on cult, horror and exploitation film including The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and the 2021 updated second edition of the same name, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018), and two Bram Stoker Award nominated books, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media, 2020). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Wonderland (Thames & Hudson, 2018) on Alice in Wonderland in film, co-edited with Emma McRae, and Strickland: The Analogues of Peter Strickland (2020) and Cattet & Forzani: The Strange Films of Cattet & Forzani (2018), both co-edited with John Edmond and published by the Queensland Film Festival. Alexandra is on the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.