Natalie Erika James’s impressive debut feature Relic is an uncomfortable tension-filled horror drama that will play at your emotions more than you would want it to.
An elderly woman named Enda (Robyn Nevin) has gone missing from her secluded home in the countryside. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) arrive to find the missing matriarch who has seemingly vanish from thin air. While at the house Edna reappears, present, but distant, together the family must work out what has and is going on.
Let’s get this out of the way as quickly as possible, this is not a horror film in the classical sense. Relic has a multitude of horror elements, but at its core, this is a drama. This could be disappointing to learn for some genre fans. But, let me reassure you, this is still worth your 90 minutes. The reason for this is, for the most part, this is a film firmly centred in reality.
A lot of commendation goes to James and her co-writer Christian White to bring a film that touches upon this and adapt it in a way that it can dip its toes into a multitude of genres. Mental decline in our older family members is a terrible and horrific thing to witness and for those who have watched this with a family member or neighbour will be struck hard by Relic.
We begin the film in mystery territory. Where exactly did Enda go and why did she go? This then turns to a family drama, when we realise that Kay has been struggling to take on the responsibilities of her ailing mother.
From a personal viewpoint, this hit home from the experience of watching a neighbour in a similar position. The decline is hard to take to adjust to it is even harder. It is unflinching and very unnerving as these issues are brought to us front and centre. Slowly horror elements begin to be introduced and this is where it will either gain or lose you on an audience member. If you are not a fan of slow build films then you may struggle here, but if you can stick with it the reward is handsome.
Relic strength is that it knows what its themes are and you can either go with it or not. The illness affects people differently, even if you are not that one who has said disease, James doesn’t let us forget that fact, positioning her camera with a striking stillness. Again this restrained nature of filmmaking works well here and the metaphors in the final act do so as well. Relic, whether you want it to or not sticks with you thanks to the suffocating atmosphere that was built in the opening acts.
Our three leads are extremely strong here and are perfectly cast as their little quirks show their relationships with one another very well. Edna is trying to fight a disease she knows she can’t beat. Leaving herself notes around to help her remember, to give her more time. It is a heartbreaking performance from Nevin.
Mortimer plays her role to perfection. Kay doesn’t want to accept what is happening to her mother. For she knows or at least has that great fear that she is next. Knowing what is going to happen to her own mental state down the line is as terrifying as it comes.
Heathcote has an equally difficult task of playing a character who is witnessing this waning of a relative. Her main priority is to keep Edna comfortable, informed and to please her during this time. Even if you start to do things you normally wouldn’t do so. She is also slightly outside of the bubble in knowing about her families future. At the beginning of the film, she has not quite realised what this road possible leads to. As the film progresses, however, the reality hits her as we take a sharp psychological horror turn. Sam’s realisation that she will be in Kays predicament in a couple of decades. Leads her to try and figure out how if at all she can get out of this vicious unforgiving cycle.
These characters and performances are firmly based on reality and that is where Relic truly succeeds. By having these characters feel real and not just be wild caricatures of what they should be. James allows for the audience to get sucked into their plight. So by the time the third act comes around. We are almost surprised when these horror elements come out in full force.
That is the showing of a film and a filmmaker that is full of confidence in their work. She is not afraid to pull the rug from under our feet when necessary. The camerawork and editing also work in favour of the film here as they create an emotionally jarring film.
Horror films always work best when you don’t know what is coming and the slow drips we are fed throughout. Relic can only be classed as a success in our eyes. We are very much looking forward to what Natalie Erika James gives us next.
To view more of our reviews as we cover the London Film Festival 2020, please have a gander below!
The Painter and the Thief ★★★★ – LFF 2020