In Relic, her striking feature debut, Natalie Erika James evokes the horror inherent in our human fate. The mundane aspects of everyday life acquire a horrific magnitude as an ominous sense of dread grows slowly over the course of the film, leading to an intense, and unexpected, denouement. Vivid characters and excellent performances mark a film that is as much about relationships as it is about fear.
Kay (Emily Mortimer) hasn’t spoken to her elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) in weeks. But when the neighbors report that they haven’t seen her mum for several days, she sets out immediately with her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote). Arriving at Edna’s home in the wooded countryside, they find the house empty, and disturbingly altered. There are new locks and latches on the doors, a massive clutter, and post-it notes everywhere – some with reminders of everyday tasks, like flushing the toilet, some cryptic. All are grim indications of Edna’s state of mind.
A search party in the brooding, mist-covered woods fails to reveal any clues to Edna’s whereabouts, but raises the ghost of memory for Kay, as she recalls a cabin where her great-grandfather had lived alone, apart from the family. The cabin had been taken down years ago, but a stained-glass window with a serene scene of green trees and blue skies had been salvaged and installed in what is now Edna’s home. Kay’s dreams fill with disturbing images, and as she slumbers, a gnarled hand caresses her head. The next morning, when she wakes, she finds Edna in the kitchen, offering her tea.
Her feet bare, her gray hair wild and tangled, a large, black bruise in the center of her chest and traces of blood on her nightgown, Edna refuses to speak of her three-day absence. It is soon clear that Gran is not quite herself. Yet is she possessed by a supernatural force or by the subverted workings of her failing brain?
Emily Mortimer (Lovely and Amazing, The Bookshop) brings a moving depth to the character of Kay, who encompasses a dedicated yet distanced pragmatism in relating to both her mother and daughter, along with an acute anguish and all-embracing love. While Kay’s response to Edna’s condition is almost coldly cerebral – setting the house to order, researching retirement homes and making lists, Bella Heathcote imbues the character of Sam with the warmth, spontaneity and optimism of youth. Sam responds to Edna’s plight with affection, and a desire to help. Yet between Kay and Sam, one can see the same fissures that might contribute to a rift such as came between Kay and her mother, Edna. Robyn Nevin is heart-breaking in her depiction of Edna’s torment, reflecting the sharp-minded independent woman she used to be, and the woman she has become: in one moment dancing to music, impeccably coiffed, and in the next viciously aggressive, or fearful, terrified of that which is taking over her. There is a painful clarity in her grief, as she tells Kay: “I just wish I could turn around and go back. I’m losing everything.” After all, what is our greatest fear, if not loss of self?
The house itself is a main character in the film, filled with a sense of dread, its accumulation of the ephemera of life, its sudden mysterious sounds, and state of neglect reflecting Edna’s decline. Taken as a metaphor, the house is that bone house in which each of us is inevitably trapped; there is no way out. Although there are some tantalizing threads that are not satisfyingly developed in the narrative, this does not significantly impact the effect of the film’s main themes. Cinematography and sound work throughout the film to create an ominous sense of dread, as the suspense slowly, yet inexorably builds. The ultimate scenes are harrowing and as riveting as they are disturbing to watch, culminating in strange, unsettling ambiguity. In her first feature, James has created a horror film with a depth and resonance that may well attract audiences beyond fans of the genre.
Relic will be shown online at the Haifa International Film Festival in the Midnight Madness program. Tickets and additional information are available on the festival website.
Australia 2020, 89 minutes, English, Hebrew subtitles
Directed by Natalie Erika James; Producers: Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker; Screenplay: Natalie Erika James, Christian White; DP: Charlie Sarroff; Editors: Denise Haratzis, Sean Lahiff; Music: Brian Reitzell; Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote.