The vicarage off Martyrs Lane is a house of welcome, of refuge for lost children, so why does Leah feel she does not belong? Her father Thomas adores her as much as she adores him, tall, handsome and full of fun in the days leading up to her confirmation, but the demands of the parish mean he is away much of the time, and in his absence her sister Bex can be a selfish, cruel bully, and their mother Sarah is distant, distracted, almost indifferent.
Driven by nightmares and guided by patterns of light on the walls, Leah explores the house and the gardens, prompted by a short-cut through the woods where Bex told her the story of the ghosts who live there – “You can still hear them at night, their screams” – but all Leah saw was a girl about her own age whom she invited to come play at her house.
The offer taken up, she appears at Leah’s window in the dead of night, and they play guessing games, two truths and a lie, the strange child who knows too much, who is too smart and incisive for her age, who pushes Leah to acts of curiosity and playful mischief but warns her – “Your mother will never forgive you for what you took.”
With its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Martyrs Lane is listed as a psychologically driven haunted house story, but while it uses aspects of horror they are confined to Leah’s nightmares, playing instead as a supernatural drama built around the tenets of forgiveness and Christian faith, though fortunately without overt proselytising.
Written and directed by Ruth Platt and expanded from her 2019 short of the same name, the adults remain just out focus, Denise Gough and Steven Cree as Sarah and Father Thomas, leaving Kiera Thompson and Sienna Sayer to carry the film as Leah and her mysterious nocturnal visitor: is she guiding light or snake in the garden, guardian angel or vengeful spirit?
The two children performing with depth, honesty and presence far beyond their years, they are convincing through the steps of Platt’s script which makes the answers to the mystery it presents all too apparent, the atmospheric potential of the best moments evaporating in the conventional domesticity of surrounding scenes, Martyrs Lane a film not quite sure what it wants to be.