Friday, 13 January 2012


20th Century Fox Films
Now Showing

Hype is never a good thing for a film, especially one which you have to wait too long to see. Martha Marcy May Marlene was probably more heavily praised than hyped, but having to wait almost 12 months to see writer-director Sean Durkin's directorial feature debut, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2011, was never going to help.

Not that the wait - or the hype - is entirely the fault of the film; I missed the chance to see it at the Sydney Film Festival back in June of 2011. Conversely, Martha Marcy's absence from the current Hollywood awards season probably helped lower my expectations for the film.

That's not to say that Durkin's film, or the central performance by Elizabeth Olsen (the source of most of the hype and awards buzz), is bad or even a disappointment. Overrated perhaps, but again, not entirely the fault of the film.

We first meet Martha (Olsen), or Marcy May, when she decides to escape from a cult she has fallen in with in upstate New York. Marcy May is the name given to her by the cult's charismatic leader, Patrick (an effectively creepy John Hawkes), whose spell she at first falls under but whose ways - sexual abuse of the female members, violence against people whose homes they raid for food, money and supplies - finally prove too much.

Martha seeks refuge in the Connecticut home of her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and Lucy's architect husband, Max (Hugh Dancy), but she is unable to shake her memories of her time with Patrick - the film flashes back and forth between the present in Connecticut and her past with the cult - or the fear that his followers will arrive at any moment to take her back.

Matters aren't helped by the attitudes of Lucy, who abandoned Martha to relatives while she attended college following their parents' death, and Max, both seemingly indifferent to, and with an out right lack of sympathy for Martha's wildly inconsistent moods and continual unravelling.

Elizabeth Olsen is transfixing as Martha/Marcy May (the Marlene from the title is the generic name the women of the cult use when answering the phone). Olsen's rounded face is simultaneously watchable yet predominantly void of expression; sunny and bright in her early days with Patrick's group, she perfectly conveys the mental fragility and state of anxiety in which Martha exists following her escape.

Olsen's aided greatly by Durkin who sets the unsettling tone early on. There is a pervading sense of dread throughout Martha Marcy almost from the beginning. We observe the daily rituals of the cult which seem innocent enough, but once Martha makes a break for it, the tension kicks in and a sense of unease persists through to the final credits.

And the ending of Martha Marcy has upset some audiences, leaving them feeling short changed by Durkin; that the abruptness of the ending is a cop out. But I'm less inclined to anger. Not necessarily one for closure or full disclosure, I much prefer that the film ends before the seemingly inevitable climax that is alluded to earlier in the film, and which I had been dreading.

The ending as it stands could be viewed as either a strength or a weakness of the first time feature director, but Durkin - along with Olsen - has announced his arrival, and I will be interested to see what both talents, sans hype, do next .

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