By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Carla Juri, Alec Secareanu and Imelda Staunton
Written and directed by Romola Garai
A few different kinds of horror blend together fluidly and unnervingly in AMULET. The feature writing/directing debut of actress Romola Garai is unsurprisingly attuned to performance, while demonstrating her command of the visual craft as well.
That’s evident from the opening moments, set in a fog-shrouded forest during a war in an undisclosed European country, where soldier Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) has the comparatively easy job of manning a checkpoint. There’s an austere, gloomy beauty to these scenes, which are soon revealed to be flashbacks as we are then thrust into Tomaz’s present in Britain, which is somber in a different way. Here he works as a day laborer and spends his nights in a crowded, squalid flat, clearly psychologically damaged by his past experiences. He soon winds up forced from these living quarters, and at first seems lucky to be found on the street by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), who has another, less taxing job to offer him.
That involves helping around the house of Magda (Carla Juri), who’s caring for her invalid mother living on the top floor, in exchange for room and board. It’s a simple arrangement on the surface, yet all is clearly not right. Mother (played by Anah Ruddin, though she’s largely unseen for a while) holds oppressive sway over Magda, not wanting her to socialize, and Tomaz spies evidence that the old woman is physically abusive to her daughter as well. She also motivates the brooding atmosphere Garai builds in AMULET’s first act; there’s no electricity in the house because Mother had a penchant for sticking her fingers in active sockets, and her unnerving groans and cries seep down from the attic she never leaves. And Sister Claire seems much more anxious for Tomaz to remain in the house than Magda does. Yet he stays on, and as the sporadic flashbacks continue to his recent wartime past, during which he comes to care for a woman named Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia), we get the sense that he feels a need to atone for something that happened back then, though the details are elusive.
For AMULET’s first half, Garai’s direction is calm and unemphatic, letting the scenes breathe and the actors have their spaces. This portion is so gradual in its plotting and subdued in its tone and approach to horror that it can make Robert Eggers look like Michael Bay, yet Garai keeps us intrigued with Tomaz and Magda, who at first seems even more lost a soul that he is. Slowly, they reveal curiosities about each other and begin to get to know and open up to each other, even as hints drop that something’s seriously wrong with Mother and/or the house itself. Then the movie takes a sudden, grotesque turn with a squirm-making scene around the hour mark, and Garai lets her freak flag fly with full-blown EuroGothic style, carrying us into eventually surreal territory that nonetheless remains rooted in the workaday reality she’s established–Ken Loach meets Ken Russell.
Yet the ultimate horror of AMULET lies even more in what it reveals about one of its lead characters than it does in the unearthly elements that plague them. Garai uses the gruesome trappings as supporting ingredients in an examination of the human condition, and simple behavior that’s as monstrous as anything cooked up by the effects department. The latter certainly make quite an impression, with excellent, supremely tactile and icky contributions by special makeup artist Cliff Wallace, yet the true power of AMULET lies in the characterizations that are incrementally and absorbingly developed through Garai’s script and enacted with subtlety and deep feeling by Secareanu and Juri. Both Tomaz and Magda are hiding secrets from each other, the world and themselves, and the balance of sympathy that tilts as Garai tells their story is one of AMULET’s most impressive achievements. Having assembled a superb team–cinematographer Laura Bellingham, production designer Francesca Massariol, composer Sarah Angliss and sound designer Nick Baldock work in concert to create a complete and enveloping visual and aural world–Garai has made an impressive transition from before to behind the camera, and it’ll be exciting to see where she goes from here.