I watched Martyrs Lane (2021).
The film begins with a number of seemingly disconnected images from the general area in which the main action occurs; at the end we will realise we have been shown the central mystery of the story right at the start. This includes a journey down the eponymous Lane. It is stated in the dialogue that this is occurring close to the site of a monastery destroyed during Tudor times and it it implied that the “martyrs” would have been Catholics fleeing persecution. That dubious historical detail never plays any role in the plot, except giving a pretext for the one time the girls are curious about ghosts in the wood.
Leah is the youngest daughter of Sarah, married to the vicar Thomas. Leah is quite serious about religion and is happy in the church and parish activities; she also has plastic models of Jesus and Mary and the saints. The elder, teenage daughter Bex wears makeup and is a bit of a rebel, smoking and having boyfriends sleepover, so she might not be a churchgoer though this is never stated or raised as an issue. Bex thinks Leah is an “attention seeker” and teases her that she only pretends to need an asthma inhaler,
The time is the present day or near enough. There are no references to any current affairs or the pandemic, and Bex is going away to “uni” which doesn’t seem to have disrupted, so it would be simplest to date this to 2019, when the original short version was made. Since the church has a female bishop they must be Anglican but they seem to be quite High in most respects. Leah is about ten years old, which is as young as she could be to undergo Confirmation. I presume things are a bit different in the CoE, as my experience as an RC was First Communion at 7 years old and Confirmation at 13.
Sarah is at the centre of parish life and is at least supportive of her husband in pastoral matters and playing the church organ. There is a moment when we overhear her referring to “you and your God”, implying she is not currently a believer. She also seems to have tensions with some of the parishioners, and doesn’t like them giving gifts to her daughters.
The action of the film stays close to Leah’s consciousness, which is sensitive to unseen and unexplained aspects of the vicarage. There are whisperings and rattlings in the pipework (reminiscent of the old Ghostwatch story of children sensing spectral presences). She dreams of wandering at night and getting sudden jump-scares, and these rooms are full of reflections and images within images.
In the daylight hours there is also the ambient mystery of adult lives, all the cues and references and strange words and actions that occur in plain sight and make no sense at all and are never explained. For example, why Sarah wears a golden locket. Leah opens it while she is in the bathroom and steals the curl of hair within it. At this point it should be obvious that this is a story of a dead child, the puzzle is now how it is to be worked out and how it happened.
Out walking the dog with Bex, Leah sees a mystery child with tiny angel wings on her back.
The mystery girl starts to visit her at night time, showing the power to disappear when anyone else would see her. Her conversations with Leah must be occurring silently in the latter’s imagination as no one seems to overhear them.
At each of her subsequent visitations, the angel-girl gives Leah a location in which to find the curl of hair that she needs to return to Sarah’s locket… but each of these turn out to instead contain a mystery artefact to add to the box of strange things she has started collecting. Meanwhile, the girl seems to be sickening, and the “real wings” growing on her back seem to be just gaping wounds.
In the resolution, Sarah joins in the awareness of the ghost-girl along with Leah, and the ending is ambiguous as to how she reacted. The supernatural aspects of the story are real and cannot be passed off as delusions since they connect to physical elements; there are moments suggesting a poltergeist presence in the house as well, which would fit with an invisible power arranging and rearranging the clues for Leah. There are also moments when the ghost girl can be seen moving behind Leah, so we are not limited to what is only in her line of sight. This is not a story of possession or replacement.
What doesn’t fit is how all these adults would be participating in keeping silent for so long, and what plans they would have for eventually letting Leah know more about the family history, since they already told her she was a premature birth The least realistic aspect of the story isn’t the apparition or the strange clues, but that no one at Leah’s school wouldn’t have told her the truth already, after taunting her with what must surely be well-known in the area. Somebody’s parent or older sibling would have mentioned what happened, and there would be whispers and graffiti around the school even if no one said it to her face. That’s how nasty kids can be, dealing with big, cruel events they are too young to understand, except as stimuli to be cruel themselves.
“Wound detail” and “injury detail” are 2 expressions I’ve noticed appearing in the descriptive warnings about film contents, on streaming services and in cinemas. This film contains a brief glimpse of a nasty physical wound, and the extended depiction of emotional wounding that hasn’t healed with time.