Director: Natalie Erika James
Writer: Natalie Erika James, Christian White
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote, Robyn Nevin
Producers: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw
Music: Brian Reitzell
Cinematography: Charlie Sarroff
Editor: Denise Haratzis, Sean Lahiff
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 89mins
What’s the story: When the mentally and physically frail Edna (Nevin) goes missing, daughter Kay (Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Heathcote) fear the worst. At Edna’s remote house in Australian woodland, Kay and Sam begin hearing odd noises. Matters grow even stranger when Edna reappears.
What’s the verdict: One of life’s great horrors is watching the body age and decay. Yet, that universal dread is fertile ground for horror filmmakers and debuting director Natalie Erika James reaps a veritable harvest with Relic.
She and co-screenwriter Christian White take a heartbreaking ailment – dementia – and create something compassionate, haunting and devastating. Perfectly pitched, this sidesteps cheapening the illness, using it for psycho movie tropes, *cough*, The Visit. Where Hereditary suffocated its terror with a wet blanket of grief, Relic understands horror does not need embalming to be declared accomplished filmmaking.
James’ film is in far better company: The Babadook, The Wind, The Lodge. All directed or co-directed by women, all about destructive family relationships in isolated houses. These directors may have found horror’s next winning formula.
The story may be simple, but the beauty lies in the telling. Other characters appear in the film, but this is essentially a three-hander. Incapable of delivering a bad performance, Mortimer is perfect as Kay. Caring yet brittle, she is caught between a mother you suspect withheld affection and a daughter brimming with youthful sympathy. Plus, resentment at what she perceives as her mother’s coldness.
Star-on-the-rise Heathcote offers great support as Sam, Kay’s daughter refusing to believe that her grandmother is slipping away from them.
Some may recognise Nevin from the Matrix sequels (we didn’t), but in the difficult role of Edna she is superb. Relic rides the line of ambiguity that made Robert Eggers’ The Witch so memorable, and Nevin is crucial in landing this tension. Is dementia chewing at her mind? Has something else happened? Is it otherworldly or does the answer lie with past events?
To reveal later plot details would be monstrous, and the ending will inspire passionate debate. Suffice to say James confidently combines tenderness and terror belying her debut director status, making her a director to watch. Well-sustained dread gives way to a grand horror finish in the final twenty minutes without betraying story or character.
Small wonder Jake Gyllenhaal is a producer, with the Russo brothers executive producing; they know talent when it announces itself. We just hope James doesn’t get sucked into cookie-cutting a Marvel movie before she has chance to explore other original ideas.
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