Martha Marcy May Marlene – a study of life post-cult

What happens to people who escape cults and try to get back to a more conventional existence?  Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene explores the difficulties for one ex-cult member and her family.

Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene

Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha who can be seen leaving a Manson Family style cult tucked away in rural Upstate New York in the early hours of the morning.  After an awkward encounter with a “family” member at a local diner she plucks up the courage to call her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulsen) who she has not contacted since joining the cult two years previously.  Martha may have escaped, but her problems really only begin at Lucy’s Connecticut lakeside house.

Martha’s paranoia and unconventional behaviour is in some way explained by regular cuts to experiences within the cult.  John Hawkes portrays the Charles Manson like leader Patrick who sexually initiates all new female members of the cult – the women are prepared for this by being drugged and left alone and drowsy in a room awaiting his arrival.  Martha was asleep when she was “initiated”.

Martha has trouble sleeping alone at Lucy’s house, largely because she shared rooms and beds with numerous people before her escape.  She climbs into bed with her sister and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) which highlights with great clarity that she has not adjusted to everyday life and no longer understands boundaries.

At a party hosted by her sister she believes someone from the cult has followed her – her paranoia had escalated since her departure.  It takes a number of episodes before Lucy and Ted recognise that Martha needs professional help.

This is a confident feature length debut for director Sean Durkin – character studies are no longer common place in modern cinema.

Elizabeth Olsen gives a strong, subtle and mature performance and leads the film with confidence. It is surprising that she is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.  Elizabeth appears to have an indie career path ahead of her, perhaps following the lead of Michelle Williams.

The film could have better explained how Martha came to join the cult.  Some of the “family” members, as well as leader Patrick could have been developed further.

This is an intense film that keeps the viewer hooked throughout by it’s regular flashbacks to explain Martha’s behaviour.

Highly recommended.



An Intern’s Hidden Affair with JFK

It’s nearly 50 years since President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s extracurricular activities were a White House secret and following his untimely death stories of his numerous affairs crept out of the woodwork.  One woman held onto her story for over 40 years until it was exposed by an American newspaper; that woman is Mimi Alford.

"Once Upon a Secret - My Hidden Affair with JFK", by Mimi Alford

Once Upon a Secret is an intensely private memoir from someone who has gone to great lengths to shield her past from her family, friends and the wider world.  In many ways, it could be viewed as self-preservation.

Alford hails from a conservative background, her parents unwavering Republicans.  She describes her formative years as a traditional American white picket fence lifestyle of private schools, debutant balls and an expectation to marry well.  An opportunity to become a White House intern fitted like a fine silk glove, even though the incumbent President was a Democrat.

Alford’s introduction to the President was clearly orchestrated, as were their numerous trysts over the 18 months until his assassination.  What is perhaps surprising is that she says they never once kissed throughout their entire affair.  She never met Jackie Kennedy, which is less surprising as she was spending a larger amount of her time away from the White House in their final years together.

Alford was a naive 19 year old when she was introduced to the President, a naiveity that did not seem to wane when she met her first husband Tony Fahnestock.  She confessed her affair with the President to him in the hours following the assassination and he made it a condition of their upcoming marriage that the affair was never to discussed or spoken of ever again.  Alford duly submitted and did not share it with anyone until the eventual breakdown of her marriage to Fahnestock.  She blamed the suppression of the secret on the failure of her marriage.

Alford has lived her life in a series of contradictions.  A principled Democrat in thrall to the President in her White House intern days, she then went on to work for the Republicans.  In later years she worked for a Presbyterian Church in Manhattan but was not a practising Christian.  Then of course, she played the part of dutiful wife whilst harbouring her guilty secret.

She seemed almost disappointed when she eventually shared her secret witih her children and closest friends, none of them seemed desperately surprised and almost all asked her why she hadn’t mentioned it sooner.

A product of her time, it’s hard not to wonder if she would have felt any less burdened in modern times?  In the case of Monica Lewinsky, that cat was out of the bag relatively quickly, her story was out and then she got on with her life.

Alford waited 40 years to unburden herself.

Once Upon a Secret is available now.


The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector

Phil Spector has finally been charged with the murder of Lana Clarkson and, pending appeal, spells the end of an erratic music career.

As with the controversy surrounding Michael Jackson’s run-ins with the law, it can take some time to separate the musical genius with the troubled personal circumstances of these stars.

The BBC News website has pulled together a retrospective of Spector’s career, and it’s a reminder of exactly why the fate of this man has gripped us.  My favourite Wall of Sound track is River Deep, Mountain High by Ike and Tina Turner – Ike was famously banned from the studio so he didn’t interfere with the recording.

I hope that family of Lana Clarkson feel that they have some closure and that justice has been served.

Let’s not lose the music because of the outcome of this court case.

The Wire – Where next for TV drama?

I’ve been gripped by The Wire since Christmas having required something special to fill the televisual void that is Australian television.

The Wire has not let me down.  This is the single most intelligent drama series I’ve ever seen.  I’m astonished that it is only now, seven years after is was first aired on HBO that the BBC have finally picked up on it.

The Wire is something different.  I’ve tried to describe it to people who know nothing about it and it ends up sounding like another cop show – but it’s so much more than that.  It doesn’t insult the intelligence of it’s viewers, it respects them.  The characterisation is  complex, deep and sometimes troubling – just look at Season 4 and the different paths the kid’s lives took.

The dedication of the show’s creator David Simon to present a realistic portrait of modern urban America has to be admired.  His writing team includes ex-police and Baltimore journalists, without whom we would have had a very differnt show.

The team on The Wire – cast, crew and writers – have raised the bar in TV drama to a new and high level.  So what next?  I do not think we will see a show of this calibre for some time, but I hope we will.

I’m now on the final season and I’m dreading the very prospect of it ending, my life will have a gaping Bunk-sized hole!