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Martha Marcy May Marlene (AF)


Stars: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet, Christopher Abbott, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, Louisa Krause

Director: Sean Durkin

Olsen’s extraordinary performance in her first feature film is the key element that keeps you watching an edgy but ultimately irritating psychological thriller which, for me, required a rather better screenplay and, especially, rather better storytelling to make the maximum impact of director Durkin’s sometimes too unfocussed screenplay. (In fairness, I should add the film won the Best Director Award at the Sundance Film Festival and the Prix Jeunesse at Cannes. For my money, festival prizewinners should always be taken with a pillar of salt – The Tree of Life, anyone?).

In essence, the essentially horrific story slowly emerges in a series of often less-than-effective flashbacks and flashes forward as a terrified Olsen flees a farmhouse in rural Upstate New York and takes refuge with her longtime estranged sister Dizzia and her husband Dancy in their luxurious lakeside summerhouse in Connecticut.

The reunion is fraught. Olsen, badly traumatized by her two years spent with what turns out to be a sinister cult, finds it hard to adapt despite being told by Dizzia, “It takes time for people to find their way in a new family” and ““If you’re going to live here you need to be a part of things”. But memories of sexual exploitation during her time with the cult have left Olsen unable to relate properly to ‘normal’ life, whatever that is…

Individual scenes hit really hard, notably when Olsen crawls into bed with Dizzia and Dancy while they are making love as had been the abnormal norm with the cult. It’s Olsen’s film but Paulson, Dancy and Hawkes as the cult leader add welcome depth and dimension.

It’s a real pity that too often Durkin’s too-clever cinematography and apparently inconsequential scenes rob the film of some of its undoubted power to create genuine emotional horror at Olsen’s fate.

Alan Frank

USA 2011. UK Distributor: 20th Century Fox (Fox Searchlight). Technicolor.
102 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 2, Violence/Horror 1, Drugs 0, Swearing 2.

Review date: 30 Jan 2012