REVIEW

Martyrs Lane is a moody ghost story on Shudder

Martyrs Lane (Shudder, NR, 95 minutes)

4 stars

Grief is one of the most painful, powerful and isolating of experiences. The grim power of grief is one of the themes at the heart of this spooky, slow-burning British ghost story, told from the point of view of a 10-year-old girl.

Writer-director Ruth Platt's story has some predictability but her subtle handling of atmosphere and the fine cast make it worthwhile if you like a dark, brooding Gothic ghost story with an emotional centre.

Leah (played by Kiera Thompson) lives in the large (and somewhat eerie) vicarage adjoining the church where her father, Thomas, is the priest.

Having foreknowledge also makes for a feeling of mounting dread: where will Leah's discoveries lead her to and what will be the consequences?

She's closest to Thomas but his parish work keeps him busy and away from the family most of the time.

Her sister, Bex (Hannah Rae) is some years older and is preoccupied with her imminent return to university and her mother, Sarah (Denise Gough) is sad and distant.

Since she has no apparent friends, it's a lonely life for the little girl who is sensitive enough to know something is wrong in her family - with its silences, and half-overheard, furtive conversations - but not what or why.

Leah becomes troubled by spookier phenomena, too: nightmares, strange sounds and whispering voices.

Kiera Thompson in Martyrs Lane. Picture: Shudder

Kiera Thompson in Martyrs Lane. Picture: Shudder

She becomes fixated on a locket her mother always wears and takes it to find out what's inside, but this doesn't provide her with any obvious answers.

One day, out for a walk in the woods, she briefly encounters a girl about her own age (Sienna Sayer) who appears at her window at night.

Being lonely, and remembering the Biblical reminder "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some people have shown hospitality to angels," she lets the girl into her room.

The mysterious girl - who is dressed like an angel, with wings - won't reveal her name but they start chatting and playing the game "Two truths and a lie".

Leah's new companion keeps coming to the window but disappears whenever anyone else enters the room. Some of the girl's "truths" lead Leah to make discoveries around her home and garden - a feather, some letter cubes from a necklace, teeth - but she doesn't know what they mean and keeps them hidden in a box.

This isn't a film for those seeking cheap thrillers, jump scares or buckets of blood and gore. Nor is it for the impatient or those who want something completely unpredictable.

While viewers might guess earlier than the main character what's going on, it's not a problem. Leah is a child who is caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Having foreknowledge also makes for a feeling of mounting dread: where will Leah's discoveries lead her to and what will be the consequences?

The story is also grounded in a situation many people will be able to relate to, which provides some genuine emotional weight.

Platt crafts the film imaginatively, with some unusual shots and framings that are disconcerting but not distracting: they add to the atmosphere of creeping unease.

Her actors are good, too, especially the two young girls, who are neither stiff nor annoyingly precocious: they seem real.

There's a curiously old-fashioned feeling to Martyrs Road: the buildings are old, the modern references few (if any) and there don't seem to be any computers, mobile phones or other newfangled technology: cars are about as modern as it gets. We could be somewhere in the last century.

This lends the story a rather timeless feeling, as though it belongs in the longstanding tradition of the British ghost story.

This story A ghostly tale deals with grief first appeared on The Canberra Times.