55th BFI London Film Festival – Martha Marcy May Marlene Review

The directional debut of Sean Durkin tells the story of a girl trying to cope with normal life after escaping a cult family. The girl, played by Elizabeth Olsen, suffers many traumas and finds it hard to discern the difference between her present and past life. Throughout the film we are faced with the memories and struggles Martha faces in what would be believed to be, the safety of her sister’s home. The audience are also shown the struggle of taking care of Martha. It becomes obvious that what Martha escaped was more menacing than her family were led to believe.

The film is shown in conjunction with the thoughts of Martha, what first appears to be an idealistic family transgresses into a violent cult lead by the charismatic, and selfish, Patrick. It is clear from the offset that the members of the family follow Patrick with blind devotion, despite his dark actions. John Hawkes (The Perfect Storm, American Gangster), who plays Patrick, is incredibly powerful in the role of leader. He exudes Patrick’s qualities skilfully and it becomes easy to see why Martha became so frightened of him and his power over the cult. The most extraordinary performance of the film however, comes from the Elizabeth Olsen. For her first role it is clear that she has an incredible talent for acting. She takes on the role of Martha with such ferocity that it is hard to tell whether she is just a character or someone we may see in our everyday lives. Sean Durkin directs incredibly well and the work of Jody Lee Lipes in the cinematography of the film should also be noted. The style of filming can be praised for its beauty as it is edited well to match the screenplay.

What I found the most interesting in the film was seeing the affect the memories of the cult have on Martha’s life. Her performance in these scenes were incredible as her character’s vulnerability and paranoia were obvious. The audience could so easily feel her emotions that it made the whole film appear more real. The film is Olsen’s acting début, and is an impressive one at that. Furthermore, the desaturation of the film made it more natural and enjoyable to watch.

It would have been interesting to see how Martha came across, and was persuaded to join, the cult. However, it is clear that this is not the point of Durkin’s film. The aim of the project is to reveal the struggle with identity and the life of Martha after her escape. Other than this there are no obvious faults with the film. Durkin’s beautifully poignant story has the ability to linger in the audience’s subconscious and this is one of the exceptional qualities of the film.

Reviewed by Roxy Simons.

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