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Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has returned home after a two year absence. As she remembers why, we see her recent life in an abusive self-sufficient community from which she hopes she has now escaped.
The movie that will be remembered as the break-out performance of Elizabeth Olsen (sister to the currently better known Olsen twins) and also the arrival of director Sean Durkin as an exciting new talent, Martha Marcy May Marlene is nowhere near as twee or quirky as its indie singer-songwriter title would suggest.
Standing or falling, and in this case standing, by its lead performance, the film sticks close to Martha and her emotional journey. It's a journey that led her to reject conventional society and her family in favour of a backwoods commune, where she is re-named Marcy May by the vaguely Messianic leader Patrick (a highly effective performance from John Hawkes).
The film is at pains not to preach about cults or those who find themselves enmeshed in such dynamics; it's more of an exploration or impression of the emotional state of someone who has recently taken the decision to reject those dynamics. Lest this sound rather hazy or washed out, it's important to note the control Durkin maintains over his material: he knows where the film is going, respects its limits and polices the borders. What happens to Martha after the events of the film is not in scope; this is a fixed period in her life, brilliantly realised.
Neither the thriller the trailer suggests, not the feminine, visual poem suggested by the poster, this is a film about loss of self that is absolutely clear about its own identity: a tightly-framed window overlooking the effect on one woman of renouncing the structures defining her life.
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