Cinema Review – Martha Marcy May Marlene


Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes from an abusive cult and reunites with her family after many years. This is not as easy as it sounds, however, as Martha is plagued by painful memories of her past.

Throughout the film, Elizabeth Olsen’s character goes through many names, each symbolising and defining her at a certain stage in her life. When we first meet her, Marcy May – as she is called – is living on a communal farm where women are subservient to men. Although Martha removes herself from this situation, she is more defined by it when she leaves. Martha becomes an almost spectral presence lingering in her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson)’s house and, as her paranoia increases, Martha becomes wary of her brother in law Ted (Hugh Dancy) and drives a wedge between the couple.

Martha’s depression and paranoia colour the film and we learn, through flashback, what happened at the farm to make the character want to leave. Although the two locations in the film are markedly different, they begin to look the same, as Martha’s emotions and some clever camera work suffuse the scenes with the same oppressive air.

Elizabeth Olsen is nothing short of remarkable in this film; she captures the confusion of a character who has gone from a world marked by evil to one that has little regard for anything. The subtle progression of Olsen’s character gently poses the question to the audience, which is worse? Why is Martha struggling in the ‘real world’ when this is the world she wanted all along? Which world is more oppressive, the morally loose farm that was marked by violence or the impatient world that will not even allow Martha to grieve for what happened to her? Olsen’s facial expressions go a long way to telling the story, but any help she needs is given by the cinematographers choices to either smother the character with the camera or leave her alone and bewildered, a tiny figure in a huge frame.

Although Martha Marcy May Marlene does not analyse the character in an obvious manner, this works for the film as this film is Martha’s; she does not know how to analyse or integrate what has happened to her and nor does the film. The film is a tough and unflinching examination of psychological issues, and a world infused by Martha’s mood. In this film, Olsen makes herself a face to look out for and firmly steps out from her older sisters’ shadow.

Martha Marcy May Marlene may create as many mysteries as it solves, but first time film maker Sean Durkin and Elizabeth Olsen make such a strong impression, it is easy to overlook this and become immersed in the world on screen.

Rating: 4.5/5

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