Thursday, 2 February 2012

'Martha Marcy May Marlene' Review

Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir: Sean Durkin, 2011/2012) Cert: 15

Perhaps the strongest and most powerful connection a film can form with it's audience is the ability to keep hold of it's viewer long after they leave the theatre. Recent dramas such as Shame and Snowtown have managed this emotional resonance with one and now début writer/director Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene joins this mind-boggling and multi-layered group. After sadly missing it at the BFI London Film Festival last year, I have finally caught up, and boy was I missing out.

 Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a young woman plagued by painful memories and suffers at the hands of extreme paranoia. After fleeing an abusive cult led by Patrick (John Hawkes), Martha begins to try and re-assemble her fractured life with the aid of her sister and her new husband, but this will be no easy task as she still feels suffocated and controlled by her previous encounters.

 After seemingly living in her older sister's shadows, it feels revelatory that Elizabeth can break free of the Olsen curse and stop being known as Mary-Kate and Ashley's third wheel. Her stark, naked and earth-shatteringly engrossing portrayal of a young woman unable to grasp what is the past and the present is amongst the most memorable and bravest début roles in recent years. MMMM may seem simple in terms of it's nutshell narrative, but during it's duration, Durkin's introductory film becomes a sheer example of how wonderful American cinema can be when handled with skill and nurtured with elegant craftsmanship. 

 The genre label of psychological thriller is an immediate turn-off for many viewers, but it would be a lie to classify this picture as anything but. What may strike viewers however is it's ability to make those watching question the formatting and indeed the reality of the world in which Martha resides in. Aided by a rich and tonally perfect script, Durkin plays with space and time causing this tragic tale to unfold in a non-linear pattern - one moment Martha will be relaxing on a beautiful boat in a calm, secure and secluded environment and the next she'll be thrown right back into the uncertainty and traumatic 'family' that Patrick and his merry men have established. 

Still from Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir: Sean Durkin, 2011/2012)
 Mouthful title aside, MMMM never fails to let it's hooks become loose within its audience, nor does the consuming feel of dread ever let up or become undone. Durkin's film is a gut-punch that hangs in the balance and certainly holds a space in the mind. Much like the films of Michael Haneke and indeed John Hawkes' other master-work Winter's Bone (in which Jennifer Lawrence gave a star-making performance), this picture uses slight and précised direction within the taut and gripping environments rather than screaming with explicit or overly-graphic imagery. Seeing as Martha or 'Marcy May' as Patrick calls her, escapes from a sexually deviant select group, the emphasis on sexual activity and in particular rape, are meshed and constructed by dim lighting and stationary camera work. This way the audience understand the horrors that are occurring without showing too much. This along with the rest of the film's visual structure only supports one's claim of it being delicately crafted.

 This is a brooding, haunting and equally melodic work that manages to subtly present such drama through minimalistic activities and blank expressions and yet still be exciting and involving. A scene which sticks in particular involves Martha listening in to sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) arguing about her mental state. Durkin's statutory camera rests on Martha's empty, vacant façade and stays for a awkwardly long time; so long in fact it feels that Martha is staring deep into the viewer, pressing us with all her hurt and emotion - it's a signature hallmark of fine filmmaking and understanding of cinematic space.  

 As previously mentioned, Olsen's performance is nothing short of extraordinary; in fact it seems criminal that she wasn't Oscar nominated - to be able to present such rich emotion, such honesty and such realism is a real feat of cinematic performing and considering this is her first leading role, it's almost an impossibility. Whether Olsen will ever be this good again is questionable, but she is without a doubt a star in the making and her role as Martha in this 102 minute feature is far superior to anything that her elder sisters have done in their lengthy screen careers. Elizabeth Olsen will be a huge name by next year - I'm certain of it.

 Hawkes gives another stunning performance as Patrick - he reeks with sinister qualities and ulterior motives but his humble, vest-laden shell presents an image of innocence and security. His dimensional and troublesome dramatisation of a supposed father figure is wonderful and again, it's a travesty he wasn't granted award nominations. Paulson and Dancy are also fantastic as Martha's estranged family who battle to help her and understand what horrors she faced in her recent experiences. Plus Brady Corbet works in some of the menace from his performance in Haneke's Funny Games remake for his dark role as Patrick's right-hand man, Watts.

 Martha Marcy May Marlene is a challenging, thought-provoking and deeply affecting drama aided by supreme performances, visual flair and Durkin's beautiful eye for cinematic details. It isn't a film you will particularly enjoy, but it will stay with you long after watching and make you question the complexities of the human psyche. This is a tense, demanding and spellbinding début feature that deserves an audience and attention - it's a masterpiece and a filmmaking landmark.

Disturbing, harrowing and essential - Durkin and Olsen create a profound and magnetic work that has to be seen to be believed. 

By Chris Haydon

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