Director: Romola Garai
Stars: Carla Juri, Alec Secareanu, Imelda Staunton
Such is the nature of indie film distribution – in combination with the ongoing pandemic – that Romola Garai’s 2020 effort Amulet is only now reaching UK cinemas in a conspicuously modest run. Ah well. A little exposure is better than none.
Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) is an ex-soldier and now migrant, eking out an existence as a day labourer in London, plagued by flashbacks to his days as a checkpoint sentry. Given charity by a nun named Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), Tomaz is invited into the home of Magda (Carla Juri) and her mostly unseen, dying mother (Anah Ruddin) who inhabits the top floor. The house is bare, moldy, dilapidated.
Garai’s presents her story in a fragmented nature, shifting back and forth with a sense of PTSD that chimes with her protagonist. “Forward is not the only way”, Sister Claire advises Tomaz, and it’s knowledge he is all too aware of, as his past experiences haunt and infect his gloomy present. This sense of scattered association creeps into the film in other ways, too. Composer Sarah Angliss likens reflected brake lights on the wall of a tunnel with the shimmer of windchimes. Conflation is a preoccupation throughout Amulet.
The concept of a decaying home as a reflection of it’s festering inhabitants is far from revelatory, but execution is the key to making it a success. Natalie Erika James’ Relic being a recent, perfect example. Amulet aspires to the same level of metaphorical grace. It certainly has the dour austerity of the recent wave of so-called ‘elevated horror’ (a term as condescending as any the genre has garnered over the decades), but it arrives at what feels increasingly like the tail-end of this wave. Again, the delay in release can take some degree of the blame here. Still, it’s hard not to feel as though a lot of Amulet‘s slow-burn dread has been played out before.
In piecemeal fashion we are told the story of Tomaz’s past aiding a refugee woman named Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia) across the border. It becomes increasingly clear that Tomaz is not so much haunted by wartime atrocities as he is by this more personal encounter that he fears is being echoed in his burgeoning relationship with Magda. For her part, Magda has her own demons to reckon with; both in the form of her rotten, rickety and possibly inhuman mother, and in the sense of puritanical shame that has been instilled in her. She is cloistered, in need of freedom.
Reconciling shame is, of course, a concern for Tomaz, too. His placement in Magda’s home positions him as a kind of mythic hero who has to overcome certain trials in order to achieve redemption. In the world of Amulet, such trials include fishing demonic bats out of toilet cisterns or, more threateningly, allowing himself emotional availability with the yearning Magda. Still, the best Tomaz seems capable of hoping for is a dreamless night’s sleep.
The cast perform their roles well, but special mention must go to Staunton, whose Sister Claire initially seems a little stilted and quaint. As things progress, however, she is allowed to add more vampish details, and the flex is one she appears to relish. Any scraps of joy are precious here.
There’s a hazy lack of specificity to Tomaz’s backstory (which border is he guarding, exactly?) that doesn’t help solidify Amulet. Granted, one might argue that it could be any border. But for a film so preoccupied with details, this lacking feels like a deliberate and frustrating soft serve. It weakens the sense of the political that other elements of the film seem eager to key into. Generic Eastern European is as close as we get.
Often we are invited to view through things. Keyhole-like gaps in walls are most common. Amulet conjures a sense of peering, or of glimpsing from a remove, with the danger of discovery ever-present. It is acutely rendered fear-mongering; as fractured a method of viewing as Tomaz’s own jumbled up memories. In keeping, we run the risk of misunderstanding. If our glance is fleeting and our judgement quick, we might misread or misremember. Narrow views create prejudices. This, at least, enhances the film’s would-be political allegory. But without specificity it’s all a little moot.