REVIEW: Relic (2020)

dir. Natalie Erika James.

Following the disappearance of her elderly mother, Kay (Emily Mortimer) returns to the family home with daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) to search for her. But when Edna reappears, disorientated and reluctant- or unable – to disclose where she’s been, the multi-generational triptych are left circling each other with growing distrust as they try to decide how best to move forward, and whether there might be something else in the house with them.

Weighed down by the guilt of childhood memories about her own grandfather who died neglected in the woods, Kay’s fractured dreams are invaded by images of this repressed trauma just as a mysterious mould invades the home. Edna, by contrast, is alternately vivacious and forgetful, independent yet childlike, her personality shifting as if pulled by some capricious unseen puppet master. That she is succumbing to senility – or worse, dementia – seems a given, the nocturnal knocking of her house potentially just a projection of her own creaking mind, or perhaps her family’s fear.

James’ astonishingly assured debut is by turns scary, meditative, sorrowful and so delicately tender as to catch one breathlessly off guard. Horror has always been a multi-faceted jewel, reflecting different shades depending on the angle from which one approaches, but here she manages to balance such a complex blend of dissonant emotions that it marks her out as a talent to watch. The final thirty minutes in particular cycle through a waking nightmare of topographical displacement – a terrifying, nonsensical freefall recalling a dementia patient’s confusion – before landing in a moment of such unexpected grace that shrieks are replaced by stunned silence.

Confident, arresting and achingly beautiful, Relic is brave and fearless film-making, telling a common human story with uncommon craft.

Tim Coleman

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