04th Sep2020

‘Relic’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Chris Bunton, Jeremy Stanford, Steve Rodgers | Written by Natalie Erika James, Christian White | Directed by Natalie Erika James

Co-written and directed by debut filmmaker Natalie Erika James, Relic is a creepy and disturbing horror that taps into some all-too familiar fears. It’s also superbly acted and features production design work that will have you scrubbing your house clean for days afterwards.

Set in a remote woodland, Relic centres on Kay (Emily Mortimer), who drives up from Melbourne with her college-age daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) in tow when the police call to tell her that her elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been seen for a few days. Other than some nasty-looking mould, nothing seems particularly unusual in the house, but Edna is nowhere to be found.

Kay duly alerts the authorities, only for Edna to turn up a few days later out ot the blue, safe and sound but with no apparent knowledge of where she had been. (“I suppose I went out!”, she snaps, grumpily). However, it soon becomes clear that something is not quite right, leaving Kay and Sam with some difficult decisions to make.

James (who is Japanese Australian) co-wrote the script with novelist Christian White and between them they dig into some emotionally resonant themes, from the universal fear of getting old, to the onset of dementia (in both yourself and someone you love), and several different shades of parent-child guilt. To that end, the film explores two different mother-daughter relationships, with Kay feeling the pressure of being both mother and daughter.

James’ direction is assured throughout, aided by some extraordinary production design work on the dark and decaying house, a potent metaphor for what’s happening with Edna. Similarly, cinematographer Charlie Sarroff has a lot of fun playing with dark shadows, making you think every shady corner is filled with lurking menace. Did that mould…move?

On top of that, there are lots of nice little touches that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever had to deal with a parent with dementia. Accordingly, one of the film’s best moments involves the use of Post It notes Edna has left lying around for yourself, most of them saying helpful things like “Take pills” or “Empty rubbish bin” until Kay finds one that reads “Don’t follow it.”

The performances are excellent. Mortimer is particularly good as Kay, her face a taut mask of inner pain as she tries to make the right decisions for her mother. Similarly, Nevin delivers a finely judged turn as Edna, at once heart-breakingly vulnerable and unsettingly creepy in a way you can’t quite put your finger on. Rounding out the trio, Heathcote brings a perky note of youthful optimism that you just know is going to be severely tested before the end of the film.

If there are any quibbles, it’s only that James is maybe a little too fond of scenes where somebody walks through the dark and creepy house at night. One sequence in particular seems to go on forever, to the point where it feels like over-indulgence of a specific gimmick (though to be fair, it’s an effective one).

Without giving too much away, James rounds things off with an impressive final flourish, delivering an ending that’s as unexpected as it is deeply disturbing ending. Ultimately, Relic is a supremely unsettling horror horror that marks out James as a serious talent to watch.

**** 4/5

Relic is released in the UK on October 30th.


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