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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 Martha Marcy May Marlene


Directed by Sean Durkin (2011)

Apart from being a bloody awful title, Martha Marcy May Marlene denotes the shifting identities of its protagonist who, for ease, we’ll call Martha.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has escaped from a Charles Manson-style cult in the Catskill Mountains where for two years she’s been one of the ‘wives’ or slaves of its creepy leader, Patrick. The story of how she was inducted, or cleansed, or more specifically drugged and raped, is told in the flashbacks that intersperse her other induction, into the ‘normal’ life of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and British brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy).

She falls in love with Patrick, in the manner of an abusive relationship, and only when things go horribly wrong does she take flight.

Her efforts to rebuild her life, though, betray an ambivalence about whether the outside world is really that much different to the crazy cult, pointed up by the sharp cutting between present-day and flashback that deliberately confuses the two worlds, both of which call themselves family.

As in the cult, Martha is forced to conform to what Lucy and Ted perceive to be the right thing to do. She’s chastised for sitting on the kitchen work surface, for skinny-dipping, for wearing unfeminine cloths. She has a row with Ted who can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to settle down and have a career. He declares her insane.

“I’m a teacher, a leader,” she tells him, repeating what Patrick has told her about herself.

Is she simply brainwashed? Or has she seen through the false values of bourgeois life? Shouldn’t we all aspire to being a teacher and a leader rather than submit to convention? Of course Patrick is duplicitous and manipulative. But he knows how to exploit a genuine and valid dissatisfaction with modern civilisation.

The best thing about Martha Marcy May Marlene is Olsen’s performance. She begins as a vulnerable and withdrawn younger sister, tormented by her recent past, but you can almost see her reaching within herself for a strength, a conviction in her own identity, framed by her resistance.

An open ending leaves us wondering whether Martha really is going to escape the cult. And it leaves us, too, with the worry that she’s only changed one family, one prison, for another. One that she might find even harder to get away from.

February 14, 2012

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