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London Film Festival: Martha Marcy May Marlene - Review

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

SEAN Durkin’s disturbing debut Martha Marca May Marlene was one of the talking points of this year’s Sundance Film Festival but while it’s certainly an easy film to admire, it’s a difficult one to like.

From a filmmaking point of view, it marks writer-director Durkin out as an interesting new talent to watch, while also showcasing the acting talents of an exciting newcomer in Elizabeth Olsen and a skilled ‘veteran’ in John Hawkes.

But there are problems with it too. There’s a palpable sense of unease that prohibits any relaxed moments from the audience as well as an ambiguity that sometimes feels unfair, and while never wanting to be spoon-fed by any film, Martha Marcy May Marlene actually leaves audiences dangling at the point where things start to become really interesting.

The film focuses on Martha (Olsen) as she flees an extended family, or cult, in the Catskills and seeks refuge with the sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) she hasn’t seen in two years and her new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).

As she struggles to re-integrate with society, flashbacks show how she became brain-washed by the cult and, in particular, its charismatic but dangerous leader (Hawkes), as well as some of the abuses she was forced to endure along the way.

Given the nature of its storyline, Durkin’s film should never really make easy viewing and, as such, it treats its difficult material with the sensitivity and respect it warrants, showing how – from Martha’s – point of view it became easy to fall under the spell of the cult and, therefore, difficult to escape.

The complexity of the emotions at play is never overlooked but Durkin also builds a keen sense of tension that suggests Martha is never out of danger or beyond the cult’s reach.

But it’s a sense of unease that’s also perpetuated by the way in which the director uses the flashback technique, tossing them in randomly to disorientate the viewer and create that uncertainty in their minds.

That said, he draws fierce, raw and strikingly authentic performances from everyone concerned, especially Olsen whose jittery, unstable disposition makes her an edgy, often unsympathetic presence who you’re never quite sure about from one minute to the next.

Hawkes, too, brings a quiet menace to his cult leader, while Paulson and Dancy expertly tap into the dual emotions of wanting to care and understand yet being angry at putting their lives on hold for someone whose answers are far from forthcoming, and whose actions are anything but normal.

The slow-build nature, too, adds to the overall feeling of unease, even though the pacing sometimes feels as though it could use an injection. Indeed, this is a point made all the more apparent by the film’s conclusion, which deprives the audience of any sense of closure and not in a good way.

Having treated them with a lot of intellectual respect for the duration of the film, Durkin then issues something of a slap in the face that undermines some of the good work that has come before. And while, again, I’m not one for pat resolutions that explain everything, this one could have provided a little more.

That said, it’s a consistently intriguing and unsettling film that justifies the strong word of mouth that has so far been attached to it.

Certificate: (15) tbc
Running time: 101mins
London Film Festival Premiere: October 21, 2011
UK Release Date: February 3, 2012