The Best Film on TV this Week

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, Sean Durkin)

You remember Mary-Kate and Ashley, the Olsen twins? Yes, you do. Just admit it. Well, their younger sister, Elizabeth, is actually talented. Would her career have taken off without the familial connections? Probably not. That’s not her fault, though. Like Sofia Coppola, she can’t escape the nepotism charge but her talent should still be appreciated.

Many of the films Elizabeth Olsen has appeared in – Liberal Arts, Godzilla – have been unworthy of her talents, but Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the best American films of the past decade. The story concerns a young woman, Martha (Olsen), who is indoctrinated into a cult and subsequently manages to escape. The narrative conceit is that the film begins with Martha escaping and going to stay with her sister, then proceeds to cut between the present and the past, detailing the post-traumatic stress Martha suffers and her experiences in the cult.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a brilliantly made film with atmospheric photography, elliptical editing and a collection of strong supporting actors, but it is anchored around the central presence of Olsen; the film seems unimaginable without her. Performances of this calibre are hard to describe without platitudes. To say that Olsen is convincing seems beyond banal. Olsen is one of those actors who can portray a fully realised human being. After watching the film, you may feel like you actually know Martha. I certainly feel a closer connection to this woman than I do to plenty of people I’ve met in real life.

This is not a perfect movie; it takes a while to get used to its rhythms and some viewers may be frustrated by the ambiguous ending. But it has a quality which eludes many other acclaimed films – it stays with you. Some films tick all the boxes marked ‘quality’, but are instantly forgotten. Others – which may even have major flaws such as Spike Lee’s 25th Hour or M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village – are possessed of an indefinable mood and feeling that means they can haunt our lives for months or even years to come. I first saw Taxi Driver when I was 12 years old. I didn’t watch it again until I was 18. It was with me every day in between.

Sam Bowles


Martha Marcy May Marlene is showing Wednesday 10 December, 10.40pm Film4



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