Relic – Film Review
by Mark O. Channing
Director: Natalie Erika James
Writers: Natalie Erika James, Christian White
Stars: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote
Notionally a possession-horror film, Relic is an accomplished debut for director / co-writer Natalie Erika James that is most effective when hewing least to the requirements of its genre.
Emily Mortimer, sporting a fully convincing Australian accent, plays Kay – summoned back to the rural home of her youth after her mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin) disappears. Also in tow is Kay’s daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote). Although Edna eventually returns home, there remains something disconcertingly ‘off’ about her, presumably linked to her age, her isolation, her unaccounted-for spell in the woods, or some combination of the above. Soon all three generations are confronted with a supernatural manifestation.
The nature of that manifestation will come as no surprise from the synopsis above. Relic uses the notion of a ‘haunting’ – or rather a parasitic supernatural infection – to literalise the destruction wrought by dementia, both on the individual and on the family members surrounding that individual. It’s a good idea, and very much of a piece with any number of well-received recent films that use the formal conventions of the horror genre to explicate specific branches of trauma. To wit: Hereditary (bereavement); Midsommar (gaslighting); It Follows (sexually transmitted disease); Saint Maud (religious hysteria); The Babadook (parental anxiety); It Comes at Night (patriarchalism). This is to say that, finely made and emphatically of the moment as Relic is, it’s also hard not to react by saying: ‘Oh, I get it. This is the Alzheimer’s one’.
The film is at its best in its first hour, before the ’horror’ mechanics kick into high gear. For long and involving stretches, one can read it simply as an imaginatively realised depiction of the effects of dementia, rather than as a displacement of the subject into genre territory. Indeed, the most terrifying moment of the film – by some distance – is a visit to a care home glibly described as ‘five-star living’, where the so-called ‘ocean view’ is actually a miserable industrial vista.
Having accumulated significant dread, however, the film goes about ‘paying off’ its build-up in disappointingly straightforward ways: screaming, running, fighting off monsters. Because the central idea is so crisply legible as to permit only one reading – and because the subject of dementia is itself so frightening even before being couched in supernatural terms – there is a sense of seeing a group of characters being chased around, not by an actual threat, but by a self-evident metaphor. This correspondent found it strangely distancing to watch a character clobber a metaphor with a lead pipe, and left wondering if it might not have been more interesting – if less on-trend – for the film to simply be about what it is so clearly about anyway.
This being said, Relic is beautifully made and uniformly well-acted. Robyn Nevin, who has never been given her due internationally, is particularly persuasive – the unnerving quality of her gaze lingering long after the visual effects have been and gone.