Relic review: A thoughtful, terrifying debut
Ivan Radford | On 30, Oct 2020
Director: Natalie Erika James
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevyn, Bella Heathcote
Watch Relic online in the UK: BFI Player / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
“This house seems…. unfamiliar.” That’s Edna (Robyn Nevin), the elderly mother of Kay (Emily Mortimer) who went missing from their family home for an unknown period of time. Returning to the country estate for the first time in years, Kay finds her mother alive, but a shadow of her usual self, increasingly unpredictable and uncertain of what’s around her.
The thought of seeing a loved one deteriorate as they grow old, of generations in a family growing apart, is haunting enough in itself, and Relic roots its unsettling, upsetting scares in that intensely human tragedy. Director Natalie Erika James, who co-wrote the script with Christian White, creates an intimate chamber piece that picks apart the tense relationship between Edna and Kay and, in turn, between both of them and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote). There’s a moving exploration of reconciliation and acceptance here, performed with heart and honesty by the film’s lead trio.
But that’s not to say Relic can’t make you gasp in fear while tugging your heartstrings, and James delivers in masterclass in fusing emotion and terror, so that the characters’ memories and fears feed on each other. She surrounds them in a claustrophobic, yet eerily cavernous home, letting the edges of the frame give way to expanding darkness and rotting nightmares.
The impeccably decaying production design, combined with a horribly effective use of sound, puts us right in the middle of a fragmenting family home. As the disorientation escalates and the labyrinthine confines of the house bleeds into an increasing physical performance from the remarkable Robyn Nevin, the result is a tale of transformation and alienation that’s as heart-breaking as it is heart-stopping. Relic repeatedly finds new depths in familiar genre set pieces, without ever losing the thoughtful, mournful truths at its core. An impressive feature debut that marks Natalie Erika James as a director to watch, this is one of the best horror movies of the year.