Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy
Director: Sean Durkin
Certificate: 15

Martha Marcy May Marlene Milly Molly Mandy Marcia Marcia Marcia.

On reflection, this wasn’t perhaps the wisest choice of film to go and see with my boyfriend on Valentine’s Day. I mean, I knew it wasn’t really a date-night film, but I was still thoroughly unprepared for the reaction I would have to it. I found it genuinely upsetting to the point that for the majority of the duration, I felt like I was either going to be sick or cry or – somehow – do both at the same time. I honestly haven’t been that keen for a film to end since I watched Twatlight: New Moon. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying it, because all the way through I could appreciate the writing, performing, direction and every thing else that was screaming QUALITY CINEMA at me, but I just had such an intense reaction to everything about it that I started to want to get as far away from it as possible for the sake of my own health.

Going into this film, I only had a very vague sense of what it was about; I knew that the titular Martha had been in a cult, that “Marcy May” was the name she was given within it, and that she would be shown with her sister at some point after having escaped the cult (although the trailer barely even acknowledged that last aspect, because trailers always lie, as we know). I knew that it was going to be creepy, but what I wasn’t expecting was that the creepiest scenes, by far, would be the post-cult ones, as Martha struggles to readjust into what I’ll euphemistically refer to as “polite society”. The film really makes an asset of this – while we’re frequently invited to question whether the flashbacks are real events or things that Martha’s memory has constructed out of trauma, the cult scenes are playing in a very straightforward fashion. In a sense, because Martha is our entry into that world, we see it as she sees it, and so while all manner of terrible things happen there (including at least two sexual assaults that we’re witness to, and many more implied), there’s a cleanliness to the cinematography in those scenes that makes for a pointed contrast to the murkiness that frequently blights her scenes at her sister’s house. By this point Martha’s view of the world is severely changed, and nothing is safe to her any more – one of the most interesting dynamics in the film is her relationship with her sister’s husband Ted (Dancy), because neither one of them is comfortable around the other, and though they try to reach out to each other, there’s still a guardedness that surrounds them, and the explosion of this tension in the final act is well-earned. And, of course, we’re never entirely sure how much we can trust Martha as a narrator, which makes everything that much more complicated for the viewer.

Elizabeth Olsen gives a first-rate performance in this – at times childish, stubborn, vulnerable, stern, even solemnly threatening when “Marcy May” is at the peak of her involvement within the cult. I remain increasingly confused by this year’s Best Actress Oscar nominations, because to omit one of Tilda Swinton, Charlize Theron and Elizabeth Olsen would be bad enough, but to snub all three of them is madness. Perhaps I need to watch more of the people who did get nominated, but most of them seem to have been given points for doing good impressions of real people in otherwise disappointing films (Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams, to name two). Awards confusion aside, the acting in this film is uniformly great – Paulson and Dancy capture the stilted but sympathetic awkwardness of two people trying to cope with a stranger’s psychological issues perfectly, and Hawkes is genuinely chilling as the cult leader Patrick. It feels odd to recommend a film when I spent almost its entire duration wondering if I should’ve brought a sick bucket, but nonetheless: I recommend this. Just consider sneaking some Pepto-Bismol into the multiplex with you.

Coming Attractions:
The Woman In The Fifth: I think this is the first trailer I’ve seen where they didn’t try to hide people speaking in a foreign language. Hooray!
Gone: This looks pretty generic, but I’m just really excited that Amanda Seyfried is considered capable of opening a movie on her own. Hooray again!
Rampart: The Amazing Race has ruined me. I just spent the whole of this thinking “are you a rampart?”
Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close: Actually, now that I think about it, that sick feeling I had throughout Martha Marcy May Marlene might have been caused by having to endure this incredibly nauseating trailer for the ninetieth time.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: I expect to see a serious boost in Saga’s profits if they trail this film much longer.

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