sat 13/07/2024

Martha Marcy May Marlene | reviews, news & interviews

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Sean Durkin’s dynamite debut features a star-making performance from Elizabeth Olsen

Where is my mind? Elizabeth Olsen in 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

Drawing us deep into the coercive, immersive world of a sinister sect, in its audacity and provocatively luscious aesthetic Martha Marcy May Marlene announces its first-time writer / director Sean Durkin as a major new talent. Durkin ingeniously emulates his young heroine’s disorientation as she fights for her sanity and - as the more-than-a-mouthful title suggests - her identity.

Its credibility is buoyed by a courageous and psychologically complex performance from its young lead, another newcomer Elizabeth Olsen.

A highlight of last year’s London Film Festival, and of Sundance before that, the simultaneously seductive and troubling Martha Marcy May Marlene begins with our heroine’s breathless flight from a visibly oppressive commune in the Catskill Mountains, New York. A fearful and famished Martha (Olsen) is taken in by her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), an uptight affluent couple who are trying for a baby and holidaying in their second home, a vast lakeside property.

Unable or unwilling to explain what has happened to her, Martha’s experiences of the cult are piece-by-piece revealed to us through her memories which bleed disconcertingly into her daily existence. These give her little respite from the trauma, stoking her paranoia and ultimately unstopping her tightly-corked anger. It’s clear that she’s been fundamentally altered by the commune’s teachings and her sense of normality has been shot to pieces; at one point she crawls, childlike, into bed with Lucy and Ted as they make love, as if it were nothing unusual. The transitions between her fragile present and dark past are beautifully rendered by Durkin: Martha dives into one memory and rises through another.

As the past comes creeping back, we discover how Martha is renamed Marcy May by the cult’s charismatic leader, Patrick - a reliably formidable John Hawkes, (pictured above right singing Marcy's Song), and schooled with increasing rigidity in what to say and think. The horrors of what is revealed to be not just a patriarchal cult but a brutally misogynist one appear to us eerily muted, but they are no less troubling; the dreamy presentation reflects the dulling of Martha’s perceptions and the skilful muddling of her morality. The women are encouraged to be complicit in crimes against each other, with dead-eyed acceptance they explain away and even elevate what is inarguably sexual abuse. That the violence against these women is not without long-term emotional consequences becomes hideously apparent when one of the older female members lashes out in a crazed, unexpected manner.

The transitions between her fragile present and dark past are beautifully rendered by Durkin: Martha dives into one memory and rises through another

Martha Marcy May Marlene has the unmistakable air of authenticity. Beginning in 2007, Sean Durkin painstakingly developed his story based on both the real-life story of a girl who had escaped a violent cult and around the experiences of a friend who later came forward to share her story. He secured funding after producing a script and a credit-card financed short, which centred around the character Watts (Brady Corbet), another member of the sect. In the film’s fluidity there are shades of the great Robert Altman, whose films Durkin played to Olsen in preparation for the shoot. In creating a film that could be unsettling without being overtly frightening, Durkin was further inspired by Roman Polanski’s similarly woozy and paranoiac Rosemary’s Baby, and the finished feature also appears to be channelling more than a semblance of the chill ambiguity of another inspirational auteur, Michael Haneke.

A wonderfully successful and ambitious first feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene deftly communicates the terrifying limbo in which Martha finds herself, whilst bewitching us with its strange beauty. Knockout performances, particularly from the seasoned John Hawkes and luminous newbie Elizabeth Olsen, form part of a fine package in this artful, resonant and distinctive thriller.

  • Martha Marcy May Marlene is released on Friday

Watch the trailer for Martha Marcy May Marlene



Really enjoyed this. A great debut from both star and director and a genuinely unsettling sense of unease. Creepy and extremely well acted.

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