Director – Romola Garai – 2020 – UK – Cert. 15 – 99m
A border checkpoint soldier moves into a suburban, London house with a dark secret in the attic – out on VoD on Monday, February 28th
Somewhere in Russia or Eastern Europe – it’s not clear exactly where – a soldier (Alec Secareanu) is billeted in an austere wooden hut within walking distance of the border checkpoint he mans between certain hours of the day. The rest of the time, he wanders in the local woodlands. In one location, he gets the urge to dig in the peaty earth and finds a small figure – the eponymous amulet – of a female deity.
One day, a woman (Angeliki Papoulia) runs down the road towards the checkpoint, despite his warnings that he’ll shoot her, then trips. He takes her in, introduces himself as Tomaz and lets her use the shelter of his hut. Eventually it comes out that Miriam wants to cross the border, over which her estranged husband took their daughter, with whom she wishes to be reunited.
Is this in his past? It it a dream? It’s not entirely clear. In another reality or time period, Tomaz (now with a beard) is an immigrant in London, living in a squat and struggling to hold things together with piecemeal building work. He’s taken in by kindly Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), a nun who doesn’t seem quite right. Sister Claire lives in a large house which she shares with an insecure young woman Magda (Carla Juri) whose mother (Anah Ruddin) lives in the attic.
The house is largely unfurnished and somewhat delapidated, but rent-free provided he’s prepared to do some work on it. Soon, Sister Claire has him eating Magda’s cooking. Tomaz finds the noises from her mother in the attic disturbing, though. At the same time, he and Magda are drawn to one another…
These two narrative strands are interwoven throughout. As they unfold, links emerge between them.
The second narrative strand echoes American Civil War outing The Beguiled (Don Siegel, 1971) in which a wounded Unionist soldier is taken in by the Headmistress of a Southern girls’ school, supposedly to recuperate. Similarly, none of Amulet’s characters are quite what they seem; secrets from their pasts come into play as the drama lurches towards its finale.
In order for these character shifts to work effectively, the three leading cast members would have to be capable of extraordinary performances. And they are. Garai, making her first feature as writer-director, is clearly drawing on her twenty-odd years experience as a screen actress, although she possesses a deep understanding of other areas of film production too.
Much care has gone into both art direction and cinematography (both jobs taken by women, Francesca Massariol and Laura Bellingham), which elements have combined under a singular directorial vision to create something very special indeed. The unearthly music, by first time composer Sarah Angliss, likewise adds much to the atmosphere of the piece. Ultimately, these elements boil down to the director making good or bad choices, then working well or otherwise with her team. Garai has made some extremely good choices.
The house with the nun, the girl and the mother into which Tomaz moves is a marvel in itself, a property which has been distressed to suggest all manner of strange, unearthly goings on – yellowing wallpaper (where there is any wallpaper), stains on the ceiling, blackened water flooding into the loo (reminiscent of the one that fills up with blood in The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola, 1974).
Objects framed in close up seem to take on their own peculiar significance – the strange religious talisman Tomaz digs up, the abstract circular pattern carved into his footboard of his bed in the house, a clock with china dog and duck beside, a set of cooking utensils hanging on a wall. For me, it recalled nothing quite so much as the Surrealist fascination with objects found throughout Jan Švankmajer’s films.
Strange that all these reference points should be male because Garai’s film, its themes and its outcome are most definitely female. (Or perhaps that’s not so strange because women have been marginalised for a long time, both in Western society and its film industry, even if that situation is now shifting towards a more level playing field.) The reference points may be recognisable, but she doesn’t by any means carbon copy them, her debut feature instead playing out as something highly original. A truly extraordinary, new voice, one we thought we knew from an impressive acting career – yet which, as it turns out, we scarcely knew at all. More, please.
Amulet is out on VoD in the UK on Monday, February 28th.
UK Cinemas: Friday, January 28th 2022.