UK/United Arab Emirates 2020
Directed by Romola Garai
Head Gear Films
Warning: Some minor spoilers.
Amulet is the feature length writing/directorial debut of actress Romola Garai which had its UK premiere at the Halloween edition of FrightFest this year. It’s a kind of folk horror tale of feminist justice/revenge but it’s one of those that starts off with its roots in the folklore of one country... but then brings it into a slightly more urban environment, following a character to England.
The film starts off with some beautiful photography of lush, colourful and woodland region, as main protagonist Tomas (played by Alec Secareanu) is a solider in his own country who, because of a favour to his father, has been assigned a quiet outpost guarding a woodland border on his own, not seeing much action. We then see him wake up to the dingy colours of England and discover that he dreams about his past most nights. In England, he sleeps rough with a small enclave of homeless people, lining up for ‘cash in hand’ work and just trying to survive each day.
After a fire at the place where he sleeps and with his savings stolen, he is picked up by a nun (played by Imelda Staunton) who takes him to a run down house where he can stay and eat for free as long as he helps out around the place. Here lives Magda (played by Carla Juri from Blade Runner 2049), a somewhat isolated soul who is caring for her dying mother, mostly unseen in the attic. A lady who seems to be dying fairly loudly at times. As Tomas tries to fix up the place and to understand why the water in the house, all black and sludgy, is blocked up with strange looking ‘bat creatures’, we also get regular flashes of his back story during the conflict in his own country, where he befriends a mother trying to cross the border to be reunited with her daughter (played by Angeliki Papoulia, from Dogtooth).
The two different strands of the story play out in tandem, after Tomas finds an amulet in the woods (in the loosest sense of the word... it’s not what I would associate as an amulet but it is within the standard dictionary definition... yes, I checked) of an ancient Goddess, which makes me assume his soldiering was done in an Islamic country... although I noticed on the credits the location work seems to have been done in Dartmoor? As the two narratives play out, the events which happen in the soldier’s past and which cause him to tape his hands up each night so he doesn’t scratch his face off, reliving them in his dreams, informs the impetus of the story arc as he builds a closer relationship to Magda and tries to come to terms with what happens in the house.
It’s pretty good and the director emphasises the differences between the country of the soldier (and also, I think, once watched all the way through, the differences between before and after a certain incident), which are lush and green and full of colour... and the muted tones of the English setting. The dull and dingy streets, the light bleached pastel shades of the downstairs of the house and the dingy browns and hellish, mute oranges of the upstairs environment of the building. It’s nicely done to pitch both a physical contrast and a metaphorical contrast... if I’m not reading this movie totally wrong.
The actors are all great in this and work very well together. Staunton does, of course, shine but really everyone is top notch. The real star of the show, as far as I am concerned, is Carla Juri as Magda. You think you are witnessing a slow, coming out of her shell approach to the character when, in fact, there's more than this actually happening... but I don’t want to say what because it will spoil the movie for you. The real genius of this character is the absolutely wild and off kilter, totally alien dance moves she throws... especially when she accompanies Tomas to a disco and the contrast between ‘her style’ and everybody else’s is an almost feral but joyful thing... which also, to some fair degree, informs the character as much as anything else which is a spoken revelation in the movie.
By the end of the film I found myself somewhat puzzled. I understood the reasons why what happens does but I couldn’t understand why the form in which the film’s powerful last card which is played seems so convoluted. Ditto to the little epilogue scene bringing two characters together who had not met previously in the running time. I was initially thinking that the last 20 minutes was not a great ending to the movie but, now I’ve slept on it, I think I realise more of the reasoning behind the final fate of one of the central characters and I think I possibly understand a little more about the final ‘punchline’ scene in the movie too.
All in all the cinematography is good, the direction and acting absolutely fine and even the special creature effects are pretty nice. There’s a touch of surrealism about one of the final scenes in the movie too which I think should please a certain section of the audience (I kinda loved the boldness of it in contrast to some of the more subtle decisions throughout the movie). Amulet is a pretty good, tight little genre movie which lovers of horror and specifically, despite its partial urban environment, lovers of folk horror especially should have a good time with. It’s definitely a film coming from the same kind of stance as the ‘me too’ generation too, if that floats your boat and I hope this director gets a lot more projects coming up because I suspect this is just the beginning (fingers crossed). Certainly one to take a look at... it has a good message at its heart and you won’t see many horror films around at the moment doing this like Amulet does it. Definitely try to catch this one.