List Film

Martha Marcy May Marlene (3 stars)

Elizabeth Olsen is remarkable in a film weak on intensity and narrative

Martha Marcy May Marlene

(15) 102min

A young woman making her escape from a Manson-like sex cult sounds like the stuff of a lurid made-for-TV potboiler, but Sean Durkin’s debut eschews melodrama, instead presenting its protagonist’s ordeal in a hushed and gloomy style reminiscent of the work of Michael Haneke. This austerity can shade into pretension – we are in the presence of a filmmaker taking himself very, very seriously – but it certainly creates a compellingly creepy atmosphere, as well as allowing a magnificent lead performance plentiful space to shine. Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has been out of touch with her family for two years when she suddenly makes contact with her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who is living a nice yuppie life in Connecticut. Knowing nothing of Martha’s recent whereabouts, Lucy invites her to stay – and gradually becomes aware of the extent of the damage that has befallen her. Martha’s original name is one of many things she has given over to charismatic survivalist and pseudo-guru Patrick (John Hawkes), who keeps a community of entranced runaways in a rural compound. Hawkes is as impressive as ever, and Olsen just breathtaking – not only adored by the camera, but adept at capturing the split identity of a woman as desperate for freedom as she is inextricably enmeshed with her captor.

Unfortunately, much of the film lacks the intensity that its humid emotional climate would seem to demand. Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are two-dimensional creations, and there are too many enigmas and elisions for us to feel any closeness to Martha’s experiences or reactions, with the consequence that she can just seem like a very, very annoying houseguest. Durkin is to be applauded for avoiding pat resolutions and easy outs – and for showcasing the remarkable Olsen to such advantage – but his film could have used a little more narrative meat on its bones.

Selected release from Fri 3 Feb.


Martha Marcy May Marlene

  • 3 stars
  • 2011
  • US
  • 102 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Sean Durkin
  • Written by: Sean Durkin
  • Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy
  • UK release: 3 February 2012

A young woman (Olsen) returns to the house of her sister (Paulson) after two years as a cult member. Olsen is breathtaking, but although Durkin is to be applauded for avoiding melodrama and pat resolutions, the film lacks intensity and could have used a little more narrative meat on its bones.

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