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  • Writer's pictureSteve

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Institutionalised community spirit. It's an odd concept, to be sure. This is no doubt why leaving it is so apparently tricky and fraught with the mental turmoil we are supposed to witness here. Like serial offenders who commit crimes for the sole purpose of being locked up again, the same anguish at being lost and displaced is obvious.

Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, the 'victim' of one such trauma. Having spent a couple of years in an out of the way community, she makes a break for it. She is initially pursued. When she is found, however, there is no attempt to force her to stay. Even at the time of leaving, she is torn between the life she wants away from there and the life she barely remembers, somehow yearning for the small family she left behind. She calls her sister who travels the three hours to pick her up and so begins her restoration into 'real world' polite society.

Told largely through flashbacks at appropriate moments, we learn about the time Martha spent away from her blood relatives in the community that changed her from an apparently strong willed free-spirited girl, to a rattled and paranoid young woman.

Olsen has been quoted as saying that she did not want to follow in her more infamous elder sisters footsteps and, true to type, this is a polar opposite from the sugary sweet headlong dive into celebrity that Mary Kate and Ashley initially revelled in. Olsen's arrival was understated, assured and tempered. Her performance here as Martha is the product of a careful career choice and as such, is an impressive turn from what is a practical newcomer. The sum is greater than the parts here, however, and it should be remembered that all of the plaudits and glowing five star reviews are as much for the debut of a rising star with little experience as they are for an actual decent acting performance. Suffice to say that if a more established actress had taken the role, it may not have garnered such a fantastic critical response. Olsen is good at this, that much is clear, but not as astounding as I expect her to be in years to come. Her portrayal of Martha is lost, disenchanted, displaced and furtive, but whether this is both even and appropriate is something else.

Without going into the nuances of the character which is so deeply entrenched and yet at times aggravatingly vague, it is difficult to get a real grip on Martha, who may be accused of retreating into her shell a little too much to make the film easy to watch. Nobody ever said entertainment had to be convenient, however, and you pay your money to take your choice. The over-riding question here should be if this is an accurate representation of the kind of individual Martha would be if placed in the same situation with the same experiences. Everyone is different, obviously, but given the emphasis placed on Olsen's Martha, it occasionally seems a little contrived and, dare I say it, unbelievable.

By the end of the film it is fair to say that the poor girl has been through alot, even if only over a short period of time in a life so filled with promise. It is admirable that an attempt has been made here to concentrate on the aftermath of the subject, rather than encompassing the whole project on preceding events and the eventual escape. Too often, the conclusion of many forgets the inevitable story of mental anguish that occurs after the fact, happy to leave the viewer with a warning of misadventure, but ultimate salvation.

The supporting cast are more than able to make up for the intermittent shortcomings of a mostly silent lead, lost in a world of her own demons. Sarah Paulson plays Martha's sister and apparent saviour, Lucy, with the right amount of spirit and sensitive incredulity.

In all, a very impressive turn from Olsen, who should go onto even greater things from here. As you will read over the next couple of weeks from a host of UK reviewers, this is a very intriguing piece of cinema, albeit a little frustrating just slightly too often to call it brilliant.


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