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Relic

Director – Natalie Erica James – 2019 – Australia – Cert. 15 – 89m

****1/2

A daughter and her mother must look after their ageing grandmother in her house which seems to possess a dark character – in cinemas and platforms including BFI Player from Friday, October 30th and now Shudder UK from Tuesday, 11th May 2021

Driving from Melbourne to visit her grandmother Edna in her house in the country, grown-up daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) and her mother Kay (Emily Mortimer) get a phone call from the local policeman informing them the old lady has gone missing. When they get to the house and enter via the large cat flap, sure enough grandma is nowhere to be found. It feels lived in though, even though there are rooms filled with boxes of junk she’s never managed to sort out or get rid of. They try and tidy up, but it’s a huge task and they barely make a dent in what needs to be done.

They go out with police combing the local woods, to no avail. Sam runs into friendly next door neighbour with learning difficulties Jamie (Chris Bunton), 18, who lives at home with his father. James has no idea where Edna is either. There are strange knocking sounds in the walls, but then old houses will do such things. And stains on walls and ceilings not dissimilar to the ones in Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002).

And then, once you’ve adapted to this being a film about a missing person, just like that Edna (Robyn Nevin) turns up by the kettle in the kitchen wondering what all the fuss is about. “Tea?”, she asks.

Feeling she needs looking after, Kay slowly comes round to the idea of putting mum into a home in Melbourne where she can visit regularly whereas Sam wants the old lady to remain in the house and live independently. Edna just carries on living with her life. The point of view of the film however remains resolutely with daughter and mother.

The house itself is as significant a character as the three women. For the final half hour, Sam goes looking through a seemingly endless series of rooms and corridors filled with boxes of this and that and is horrified to discover the layout has changed and she can’t get out the way she came in. As she keeps trying, the ceilings become increasingly lower and a sense of claustrophobia envelops the proceedings – shades of Being John Malkovitch (Spike Jonze, 1999) and Haze (Shinya Tsukamoto, 2005). This is the logic of the nightmare and the film understands it perfectly.

The three leads all deliver striking performances. The film has a lot of clever tricks up its sleeves too, starting with the opening Christmastime sequence in which the bath overflows and floods the upstairs, the carpeted staircase and the hall floor. Kay has a recurring nightmare where she comes into her mother’s room to find a desiccated figure sitting on the bed which then collapses sideways to fall onto – and into – the floor. Little areas of blackness seep into parts of the house and its fixtures and fittings, while Edna develops a strange black spot on the front of her chest, the sort of thing you often see on the skin of old people as well as recalling the decrepit old woman in the bathroom in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980).

You could give an awful lot of descriptions to place this in a genre and they’d all be correct. Drama, fantasy, horror, haunted house movie, trauma. Relic is a film about women, generations, ageing, decay, home, housing, possessions. What we take to the grave and what we leave behind. How we die and how our passing affects those around us. How our minds and memories work – and what happens when they start not to work. It’s very creepy but it contains an awful lot of food for thought too. This is a film that resonates. You may find yourself wondering exactly what it’s about long after you’ve finished watching.

Relic is out in cinemas in the UK and platforms including BFI Player rental from Friday, October 30th 2020 and now Shudder UK from Tuesday, 11th May 2021.

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