Dir. Romola Garai
by Ellis Reed
Amulet – the feature-length début of writer-director Romola Garai – has been on my IMDb watchlist for far too long. It got great buzz at Sundance 2020 and later made a splash at L’Etrange and Sitges, picking up noms for Best Film. It’s now (finally!) hitting UK cinemas, which you’ll already know if you track Mark Kermode’s Film of the Week.
‘I had to wait a little while for this moment,’ Garai acknowledged, at a screening hosted by HOME in Manchester. The good news is that Amulet is certainly worth the wait – and, having spent two years waiting to see it, I could easily spend the next two talking about it.
Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) is a refugee in the UK, transported from his post at a lonely border crossing. When his London digs burn down, Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) pulls some strings for him, getting him free bed and board with a woman called Magda (Carla Juri).
Magda is a full-time carer, unable to stop her home from festering around her. As it does, her ailing mother groans on the top floor, making a blood-curdling racket that seems to shake the very foundations of the building.
Further dialling up the dread, they don’t even have electricity at the house. Magda’s mother tried to end her suffering by sticking her own fingers in the mains. As a result, Magda now has to cook and read by candlelight.
For the most part, Amulet is a slow burn that really does burn. We flit between past and present, uncomfortably sure that something happened on the border, but waiting to find out what.
In the meantime, every shot is suffused with a profound sense of the uncanny. When we follow a van through a tunnel, lights shimmer on the wall, matching – or seeming to make? – the unearthly sound of glassy chimes. The effect is one of synaesthesia, and moments like these make us wonder if and when we’re still in the normal world. Elsewhere, daylight blurs the edges of establishing shots, making the mundane seem otherworldly and strange.
Performances play a huge part in sustaining this mood. All three are different and all three are very good. Juri strikes an ethereal note as Magda, who always seems to know more than she lets on. Staunton is unsettling for a reason you can’t quite put your finger on – her Sister Claire is so earnest that it rings loud alarm bells – and Secareanu is very believable as a haunted exile. In a repeated motif, dialogue from the next scene plays across the one at hand, making it seem as if characters are reading each other’s minds. At no point in the film are we allowed to feel as if our feet are on solid ground, thanks to this heady confection of acting, direction and score.
The good news for horror fans is that ‘slow burn’ doesn’t mean ‘devoid of fright’. Amulet draws on a rich larder of horror tradition, serving up a meal of gruesome effects, nerve-fraying audio, and a climax so unhinged it almost tips into dark humour. Garai is clearly a horror fan herself and cites Hellraiser as an inspiration; during the Q&A, she had little time for labels like ‘elevated horror’ and provided a down-to-earth perspective on whether jump scares are passé: ‘I like jump scares.’ The relative lack of them in her film is down to a focus on one kind of horror, rather than a rejection of others, and you can look forward to some very hearty Grand Guignol fare in the final act.
The script has a huge amount to say, including the question of who is a hero and who needs saving. Tomaz has his own motives and assumptions, and at first, the film indulges them – even encourages them – before mocking and then debunking them. The tension between his actual and perceived role is made most striking by one line of dialogue – his plainest, most concise statement on the matter – which is brutally juxtaposed with the film’s most shocking moment.
There’s much more I want to say about that, but this is a review, and I don’t want to pepper it with big spoilers. Garai provided some very interesting context after the screening, and I’d really like to dig into it more – maybe when the dust has settled from the release – so watch this space.
For now, I’ll say that Amulet is an engrossing, challenging, beautifully put-together film. It’s frequently confusing but always captivating and bound to reward multiple viewings. It’s absolutely not the sort of film that will answer all your questions; it’s the kind that answers some of the big ones but leaves you to think about and eagerly discuss the rest.
As a novice film critic, I was very diligent in taking a notepad into the screening. It hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to write in the dark, but I did manage to scribble ‘WTF?’ at one point. I’ve been thinking about my ‘WTF?’ moment ever since and want to dive back in at the next opportunity. Make sure you see Amulet at least once, and ideally twice, because it will grip you while you watch it and linger on the mind long after.
Check this page for all the info you need on cinemas and screenings.