19th Aug2020

‘Amulet’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Carla Juri, Alec Secareanu, Angeliki Papoulia, Imelda Staunton, Anah Ruddin | Written and Directed by Romola Garai

Actor Romola Garai debuts as writer-director with Amulet, a creepy, slow building horror starring Alec Secareanu and Imelda Staunton. Stylish and unsettling, it marks out Garai as a horror talent to watch.

Right from the start, Garai plays interesting games with the audience, as we’re introduced to Secareanu’s Tomaz in two different time periods. In the first, as a younger man, he’s the soul guardian of a remote military checkpoint somewhere in Eastern Europe, where he’s startled by the arrival of a terrified woman (Angeliki Papoulia) and tries to console her with a mysterious amulet he finds in the ground.

In the second time period, a now older Tomaz is working as a day labourer in London and sleeping in a refugee shelter. When his accommodation is targeted by an arson attack, he’s taken in by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), who sets him up with a live-in handyman job in a dilapidated house where Magda (Carla Juri) is taking care of her invalid mother (Anah Ruddin). Immediately unsettled by the regular abuse that Magda receives from her mother, Tomaz’s problems get markedly worse when he discovers a series of strange things in the house, from an unpleasant toilet blockage to a familiar-looking mark on the ceiling.

Garai’s command of Amulet‘s pacing is extremely impressive, particularly when it comes to the connection between the past and the present. We know, for example, that Tomaz is haunted by his past, but we’re kept in the dark as to the true source of his guilt, which weights each new flashback scene with an increasing measure of dread. Similarly, Garai does a terrific job of building atmosphere, thanks to Laura Bellingham’s shadowy cinematography and some detailed production design that plays up the grimness of the house. This, in turn, is layered with chilling little details, such as the fact that there’s no electricity because Magda’s mother keeps trying to off herself by sticking her fingers in the sockets.

The effects work is excellent too, not least on the afore-mentioned toilet blockage, which turns out to be a superbly designed and genuinely nightmarish creature, the exact details of which it would be churlish to spoil here. Suffice it to say, if there’s a moment of the film that you’ll still be thinking about weeks later, that’s the one. On top of that, Garai proves as adept at deploying a good jump scare as she is at teasing out the slow burn. To that end, it’s a genuine shame that the film won’t get the theatrical run it deserves, because there are leap-out-of-your-seat moments here that would play brilliantly in a packed cinema.

As for the performances, Secareanu’s soulful quality served him well in God’s Own Country and it’s put to interesting effect in Amulet too, suggesting a man whose inherent goodness is slowly being eaten away by guilt. Similarly, Juri’s performance is intriguingly weird, skilfully drawing in both Tomaz and the audience. It’s also packed with surprises – the scene where the pair go dancing in a London club is delightfully awkward and strange. In addition, Staunton is typically superb as Sister Claire, making it clear that there are several different layers to her character and clearly enjoying herself as each one is revealed. To that end, there are some smart little touches in the direction, tipping off audiences early on that all may not be as it first appears.

Ultimately, Amulet is a confident and effective debut, heightened by strong performances, stylish direction and an original script that creates its own mythology rather than relying on the usual clichés. As such, it will be fascinating to see what Garai does next.

**** 4/5


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