By Peg Aloi
Amulet, directed by Romola Garai. Video on Demand
This debut film from Romola Garai is to be commended on all levels: its technical proficiency, its aesthetic beauty, its affecting and unusual story, and its standout performances.
Without question, 2020 has been a stellar year for indie horror. Even better, so far the best films in this genre have been directed by women and/or emerging filmmakers. This writing and directing debut by actress Romola Garai (seen in Atonement and the BBC series The Hour) is to be commended on all levels: its technical proficiency, its aesthetic beauty, its haunting and unusual story, and its stand out performances.
Grounded in folklore, and utilizing tropes that touch on the guilt that haunts us in the aftermath of our misdeeds, the film suggests that escaping our inner demons may be an impossibility. Amulet is centered around a young man, Tomaz, played by Romanian actor Alec Secareanu (seen in Francis Lee’s brilliant debut film, God’s Own Country). In the first scene, we see him alone in a vast forest, a military guard assigned to a remote checkpoint in an unnamed country: Romania? Syria? Yugoslavia? His days are solitary, but not all that unhappy. He dances to music playing in his headphones while he surveys the land around his lonely outpost and keeps watch for intruders. There’s a sense that he appreciates this assignment; he is far away from the front lines of whatever war is taking place. The brief montage that maps out his days shows that he sometimes thinks he hears things that aren’t there. At one point, he is compelled to dig in the forest and uncovers a clay figurine of a woman: the “amulet” of the title. One day, a young woman runs down the road through the trees, refusing to stop when ordered, even when Tomaz points his gun at her. She stops short of sprinting into him and collapses. This is the first of several flashback scenes; each gives us a bit more of Tomaz’s back story.
The forest montage cuts to Tomaz sometime in the future. He has grown a beard and is waiting in line to be asked to join a construction work crew with other immigrants in London. He offers some safety advice to an inexperienced crew member — otherwise he keeps to himself. He sleeps in a crowded squat lodging, alongside other immigrants. He tapes his hands together each night, suggesting he suffers from bad dreams and PTSD, perhaps from the war. This practice backfires when, one night, there is a fire and the squatters need to flee. Tomaz scrambles to free his hands and gather his belongings. He wakes up in a hospital, speaking to a kindly nun, Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton, in what would seem to be a pedestrian, thankless role for this veteran actress, but oh! just wait). Suddenly homeless, Tomaz also finds that his roll of cash has disappeared. Sister Claire denies having found his money, but offers to help him secure lodging.
Sister Claire brings Tomaz to stay at a once-grand house in what looks like west London, where another immigrant, Magda (Carla Juri), a young woman, is living, caring for her elderly mother. Magda needs help fixing up the place, which is beautiful on the outside but crumbling on the inside. Tomaz is wary, but Sister Claire urges him to try Claire’s delicious cooking, and reminds him that while he works he will have free room and board. On her way back to her rectory, the nun tosses Tomaz’s roll of cash into a sewer grate: the first sign that all is not as it seems.
Distant at first, Tomaz gradually becomes friendlier with Magda, who, once she moves past an initial fearful stage dealing with a stranger in her home, reveals that kindness is only one of her many charms. The two bond over their shared paths: both are refugees in a large and unforgiving city, full of other immigrants. Tomaz feels compassion for Magda who, because of her caregiver situation, is essentially a prisoner. Very strange things begin to occur, however, including the appearance of a weird, nightmarish bat creature found clogging up the toilet. At this point, the film hovers between complex thriller and outright horror. But there is a central metaphor at work here that connects Tomaz’s present to his past in the woods, to the amulet he uncovered, and to the strange sounds that emanate from Magda’s mother’s bedroom. All of these threads are tied together in Amulet‘s stunning final sequences.
To reveal more would be to spoil the slow build-up of suspense and horrific terror. But there is an intricate, often subtle, theme message here that touches on female empowerment and karmic retribution. I found Amulet quite satisfying in the way it melds a number of unusual story ingredients together, though occasionally there is a sense of strained bricolage. Garai may be attempting to weave a few too many disparate elements together (a misstep not uncommon with novice filmmakers).
Still, despite the film’s occasionally ungainly ambition, there is much to admire here: Garai knows how to build suspense and balance nuanced psychological chills with visceral physical images and sounds. The many women on her team have crafted a solid mise en scène: the cinematography by Laura Bellingham is stunning, Francesca Massariol’s production design consistent and atmospheric, and the score by Sarah Angliss is memorably insinuating. The cast is excellent, especially Staunton in a marvelously perverse cameo, and Secareanu, who injects considerable sympathy and complexity into Tomaz’s harrowing journey to redemption. Amulet is alluring, elusive, and a new treasure among 2020’s burgeoning crop of indie horror gems by women.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.