The slow rot of psychological decay is brought into the physical realm with creeping, insidious stealth by Natalia Erika James in her highly assured, thought-provoking feature debut, Relic. Re-framing more traditional genre choices for representing dementia, the Japanese-Australian filmmaker has crafted a chilling, mysterious horror to communicate the confusion and terror caused by diminishing intellectual acuity.
It is a bold, but effective strategy, and one that pays dividends by manifesting the disease’s effects on both the person suffering its debilitating symptoms, and on loved ones helpless to prevent its slow decline. Written in tandem with Christian White, James’ firm handle on the script and patient drip feed of clues is key to her film’s success. Peeling back the layers of the onion begins with an overflowing bath, Christmas lights pulsing on and off and a grey-haired woman – seen from behind – standing partially naked, shivering at the threshold of her living room.
Questions abound, then, but it’s clear that all is not well from the outset. And under the leaden skies and incessant rain of a Victorian winter, Kay (Emily Mortimer) must make her way inland from Melbourne as her elderly mother has not been seen for several days. As distant as you can imagine from the great expanses of blue sky and sunshine of most depictions of Australia on film, the cold wind, mist and grey-green-blue colour pallet contributes to the growing air of unease. Using familiar haunted house horror staples without being drawn into clichéd jumps or bumps in the night, the sounds of creaky floorboards and clanking of old plumbing in the cavernous home heighten tension further. But it is a shadowy figure glimpsed upstairs and a hand drawing hair away from Kay’s face while she has nightmarish visions of a long-lost relative that draws us closer to the edge of our seats and hearts up towards mouths.
And when Edna (Robyn Nevin) does miraculously reappear without knowledge of where she has been, Kay and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), are divided on what should happen next. Cinematographer Charlie Sarroff captures the fracturing of opinion and Edna’s gradual disintegration by split screens, blocked off by doorways and windows, and eye contact made at odd angles in mirrors. However, Sam’s compassionate desire to move in with her grandmother to care for her and Kay’s plans for a nursing home soon fall by the wayside as black mould, first seen on the stained-glass window of the front door, spreads throughout the house – and across Edna’s chest as her behaviour becomes ever more unstable and frightening.
All is not as it seems, but are we witnessing the supernatural or something far closer to home? As the walls begin to move in, both literally and figuratively, the realisation of what the world of the film now represents builds to a thunderous, breathtaking crescendo. Oddly tender yet deeply disconcerting final images sow further seeds of doubt and concern under this family tree, but Relic is intelligent, articulate storytelling. It gets under your skin and stays there and represents a strong start in feature filmmaking for James, who has surely announced herself as a new voice in Australian cinema.
The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63