Fairy tales are strange, fanged little creatures. Though we might associate them with the warmth and comfort of childhood bedtime stories, fairy tales are vicious, feral things. In a story called “The Juniper Tree”, collected by the German folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the nineteenth century, a small boy is murdered by his wicked stepmother, who hides the body by cooking his flesh into a stew. His sister’s grief is so profound that she sobs into the stew, her tears salting it so thoroughly that it does not need any additional flavours. In the more well-known “Hansel & Gretel”, the eponymous siblings are abandoned in the woods because the family is on the verge of starvation and their parents are no longer able to feed them. Fairy tales often deal with hunger and abandonment, as well as death, child abuse and violence. They reflect – and allow their readers (or listeners) to work through – difficult experiences. The writer and scholar Marina Warner puts it beautifully in her book, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale: “The pot of porridge that is never empty speaks volumes about a world where hunger and toil and dreadful want are the lot of the majority […].”
Ruth Platt’s new film Martyrs Lane (2021) is a fairy tale in this tradition. It transforms grief and longing into a form of magic that is simultaneously alluring and terrifying. The film takes very real pain, as filtered through the often-uncomprehending mind of a child, and transmutes it into a deeply melancholic ghost story filled with angels, magical quests and otherworldly signs. Martyrs Lane tells the story of Leah (Kiera Thompson), a ten-year-old girl who lives with her family in a rambling English vicarage. Leah experiences recurring nightmares about her emotionally distant mother (Denise Gough) and the golden locket she clutches to her at night. When Leah opens the locket and steals the tender curl of blonde hair it contains, she sets in motion a series of strange events that begin with a nocturnal visit from a small girl claiming to be an angel (Sienna Sayer) and culminate in the discovery of a traumatic family secret. Martyrs Lane is defined by its beautiful, delicate ephemerality. The lighting is perpetually soft, gold-tinged, and the camera repeatedly lingers on the spectral beauty of spider webs, autumns leaves and diaphanous net curtains. More than just an aesthetic choice, the attention paid to these tiny details is evocative of the child-protagonist’s perspective, her small world, and the magnified importance of seemingly minute events or objects. Martyrs Lane is a film about grief and the impossibility of repressing painful memories. It is also a film about haunting, and despite being a ghost story, Martyrs Lane shows how people can be haunted not just by spirits, but memories, losses, anger, and failures.
Earlier this week, I spoke to Martyrs Lane writer-director Ruth Platt to discuss haunted houses, childhood memories and the role of faith in her work.
Miranda Corcoran: Thanks very much for speaking with me today. I watched the film a couple of days ago, and it really just blew me away. It’s a beautiful film.
I wanted to start by asking about the fairy tale elements of the film. Was the fairy tale tradition, or children’s stories more broadly, something you had in mind while you were working on the film?
Ruth Platt: Yes. I don’t know if you know Carol Duffy, the poet, but she wrote about Grimm’s fairy tales and about bad things happening to children, how they were worked through in those fairy tales. The fairy tale element was definitely an area of influence and also the female gothic literary tradition as well. There’s kind of some crossover there. I think it’s, you know, the dark world of the imagination, and the children’s imagination. I had quite a lot of nightmares as a child. Not because my childhood was terrible. I just had this very vivid imagination, and I was picking up on fragments of adults’ lives and conversations that I didn’t quite understand. I think fairy tales are so wonderful, like Grimm’s fairy tales, because they don’t patronise children, they don’t mollycoddle them. Obviously, you’ve got to keep children safe, but they have got vast imaginations. Martyrs Lane is about a child in an adults’ world, but she is being held out, held at arm’s length, so there was a space for her nightmares and her imagination to recreate and filter the stuff the stuff that she’s witnessing and make it meaningful to her. I suppose that’s where the fairy tale world can cross over slightly, that liminal space between socio-realism and the imagination.
MC: One of the things that’s always intrigued me about fairy tales is how they often deal with incredibly dark, unsettling subject matter. I really felt that coming through in the film.
I’ve also read that you were influenced by earlier horror films presented from a child’s perspective, like The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973). And that is very much apparent in Martyrs Lane. The whole thing feels very much filtered through Leah’s perspective and through her childish imagination. And because she’s a child her imagination has this wonderful capacity to transform mundane events or images into something magical. How did you set about capturing that kind of child-like point of view?
RP: Yea, it was something we talked about an awful lot, me and Márk [cinematographer Márk Györi], and in the script as well. We were trying to scale down everything to this child’s-eye view, so part of it was keeping everything at her height, literally at her physical height, and we had this real focus on small things. She’s this little collector [of found objects] and she’s scavenging things to fill a nameless void. It was about keeping it quite scaled down and small. She’s always at a distance from the adult world; she’s seen through doorways and at the end of corridors. She’s overhearing things, so it’s about building this world where she’s quite separated. I had this idea that she was a little ghost herself, like a little living ghost in this house, which is almost like her mother’s brain, rattling around. We put her in dark clothes against dark walls, so she was almost invisible. It was just about creating this sense of her being so separate from the adult world, excluded and Othered. This is, of course, what bonds her and binds her to this little visitor that appears, this feeling of being invisible and not heard and not seen. That was something we created through the cinematography and also through the narrative.
MC: That’s really beautiful, and that point you made about her being a collector, and the focus on small things is something that I found really fascinating, visually, when I was watching the film. There was a very tactile feel to it. The camera lingers very intensely on small things, on elements of the natural world – like feathers, and dirt, and spider webs – but also on fabrics and household objects. Does all of that tie into the idea of presenting the child’s perspective, or are there other reasons that you decided to focus so intently on these minute objects?
RP: It was definitely the child’s focus, but probably also some elements of nostalgia in there as well. It’s not an autobiographical story, but there are autobiographical elements in the setting. I was fascinated by collecting things as a child. We weren’t materially wealthy, so I had this fascination with objects of no value, but they seemed to have some sort of value for me. Perhaps some objects I sensed had some emotional value, and some I put emotional value on to. There’s an element of nostalgia at play there, like Proust’s madeleine, but it was also just about creating this very child’s-eye view of the world. She lives in this enormous house, populated by lots of busy people, but the things she sees aren’t necessarily what an adult would see.
MC: That’s beautiful, that idea that what children pick up on are these little things, fragments as opposed to the whole. I could definitely see that element of nostalgia in the film’s lighting, there was a real focus on golden, yellow light – a sort of autumnal light – which really pervaded the film.
I know that Martyrs Lane, as it is now, is based on a shorter film. I was wondering: how has the project evolved on its journey to a feature film?
RP: Well, it was an odd, non-linear process, actually. I was in development with the BFI [British Film Institute], and I had this script that I was developing with them, a feature film script. They wanted to see a proof of concept. It’s always a bit of a risk when you’re putting children in a film to carry the whole narrative and the whole experience of the film. We have two children in this film, and it’s a ghost story, so it was something they wanted to see as a proof of concept. We did the short after we had a feature script. It was quite tricky because it’s easier to have an inception of a short and develop it, but once you’ve got a feature and you have to distill the essence of the film into a short, that’s a bit harder. It was a great learning curve, and we learned a lot about where to place it tonally and in terms of ensuring the right story emerged. And the child’s-eye view [perspective] has its origin in that short. But it wasn’t necessarily the easiest process.
MC: One thing that really stood out to me when I was watching the film was how it subverts a lot of the cliches about death and grief. It explores these issues in such complex ways. Was it important to you that the film’s portrayal of loss was painful, even disturbing?
RP: Yes. It was. Death is such a part of life, and there are so many taboos and salves, and ways of avoiding talking about those things. And yet the core of this film is about things that can’t be suppressed, things that can’t be dismissed. Children are naturally curious and want the truth. There’s a way of allowing children to experience the truth whilst keeping them safe, and that spurred me to write this story. If you don’t tell them the truth, it can be more unsafe.
A lot of people have said that the film’s ending is too upbeat, but I’m not sure it is an upbeat ending. I think it poses a challenge, which is even if we carry on, we have to carry something and face something that is permanently difficult and painful. You cannot get away from that. The husband in the film, the father [played by Steven Cree], has his faith as a way of resolving his pain. It’s almost like he’s giving it away to God, which is again part of my religious upbringing. That was something I experienced, but it didn’t work for me, and I could see it didn’t work for other people close to me. Ultimately, I don’t think it really works for anyone, because I think it’s a sort of deception. That was very much part of the film’s original inception: There’s no way out with grief. There are ways of living with grief, but it’s never going to be easy.
MC: Absolutely! I felt that the ending had an ambiguity to it, really. Rather than being upbeat, it felt more ambiguous and inconclusive, but that’s the nature of grief. It’s an inconclusive thing, it never really ends.
My next question actually ties into some of those points you were making about Leah’s dad. I thought that the film’s portrayal of religion, faith and belief in the afterlife was very interesting. It presents these issues in a very complex way. On the one hand, faith offers a degree of comfort. Leah’s dad talks about how when a person dies, they only leave behind memories and things. On the other hand, though, that kind of faith is a bit prescriptive. It suggests that those who are left behind should rejoice because their loved ones are in heaven, even if they are still grieving or not ready to move on. Was that a difficult dichotomy to navigate?
RP: I had to tackle that because I set the film in a vicarage and with a father who is a vicar. I’m an atheist, but I have a lot of affection for many aspects of the Christian faith, though I’m very averse to many other aspects of Christian faith. But I think the early mystics and the early Celtic Christians, the stuff that my dad taught me about, and the social justice angle and the transcendent potential, the sacred music, all those things, I miss them. When you don’t have a faith, those things aren’t available to you anymore. I didn’t want to be too respectful, but I wanted to keep that dichotomy going. Faith, the Christian faith, it can be a good thing and can be a damaging thing. I suppose I tried to walk that line.
MC: That definitely came across in the film, that sense of faith functioning on one hand as something quite comforting, but on the other as being a bit rigid or suffocating.
One thing you did mention at the start was the influence of the female gothic, and you’ve also mentioned ideas of the repressed returning. Were you drawing on Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the uncanny or the unconscious there?
RP: I’m not an expert on Freud and Jung, but I think the idea of the unconscious did filter through because I had this idea of the house as reflecting the mother’s brain. The downstairs is this very populated, very busy, daytime world where lots of things are going on and there are lots of distractions. Then, there’s the night-time, upstairs space that is quiet, dark and empty, with long corridors. It’s the unconscious or subconscious. The mother and daughter, Sarah and Leah, almost share this dreamscape and these hauntings, and yet, the adults don’t talk about it. So there was that sense of a shared unconscious and I had this idea of the upstairs being the sort of subconscious of the mother’s brain where the nightmare creep in. I think on some level Freud and Jung influenced me, even though I’m not massively well-read on them.
MC: That’s so fascinating, that idea of dividing the house into the conscious and the unconscious mind. It really broadens the scope of what a haunting can be. A haunting isn’t necessarily a ghost; it can be a memory, it can be pain, it can be trauma.
RP: Yes, exactly. It’s what haunts us, and of course, ghosts are metaphors for the things that really haunt us. Memories and grief are those things that go deeply into us and under our skin. We can’t dismiss or avoid them.
Martyrs Lane (2021) is streaming on Shudder from September 9th.