Actors turned directors are not rare occurrences in the film industry with many seasoned actors at least taking one crack behind the camera during the course of their career, from George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Tom Hanks, Warren Beatty, to Denzel Washington, with some actors discovering their proclivity might lie behind the camera more than it does in front of it, like Greta Gerwig, Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard, and Jordan Peele. The thing with most of these filmmakers (with the main exception being Peele) is that they tend to “stay in their lane” for the most part, directing films that remain a part of their overall brand. Criminally underrated British character actress Romola Garai has been around popping in and out of light, fluttery romance films for the past two decades, even scoring two Golden Globe nominations for her leading roles in television mini-series Emma and The Hour. One might expect her first foray into directing might keep along the fluttery lines of prestige romance, or maybe even a Jane Austen adaptation, but no…Romola Garai has made Amulet.
Amulet follows Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), a former soldier from an unnamed war-torn Eastern European country now living homeless in London as a day builder. After losing his one source of shelter, he is taken in by the kind nun, Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), who gives him a room in an old, run-down home owned by Magda (Carla Juri). Magda is a meek, distant young woman taking care of her ailing mother who lives on the top floor. Tomaz is given the opportunity to live in the home rent-free, given that he fixes up much of the decaying house. Spliced with Tomaz’s flashbacks of his experiences in the war, he soon comes to realize that something much darker inhabits the home than just a shy woman and her mother.
It’s difficult to summarize Amulet concisely or accurately as it’s simply one of those films where the main set-up happens pretty early on into the film, leaving the remaining hour or so full of twists and turns that shock, disgust, and yet, somehow bring an odd, sadistic sense of fun to its warped proceedings. Garai has crafted one of the more unsettling little horror films to come around in quite some time, with much of the film leaving me feeling physically affected merely from its tone and shooting style.
Shot in hazy neutral tones, Amulet immediately gives off the vibe of feeling incredibly uneasy and almost drugged, in how the film follows Tomaz around in a traumatized daze through a completely charmless and ugly London. In fact, I would go so far as to classify the entirety of Amulet as a truly ugly film, but in a very deliberate, effective way that builds slowly, but surely into something far more daring and batshit than you would ever expect from its premise. It’s grimy, nasty and unforgiving, never holding back from showing you everything it needs to in all its horrid glory, and twisting it to reflect back on the audience.
Coming off of his tender, heartfelt, breakthrough performance in God’s Own Country, there isn’t a role that could possibly be more of an antithesis to that one for Alec Secareanu than Tomaz. Filled with the everlasting dread that comes from memories of war, Tomaz is introduced to the audience as a broken man, and through flashbacks, the audience is shown the chain of events that led to Tomaz’s breaking. It’s a fascinating character arc that leaves the audience looking back upon themselves with almost a sense of guilt for viewing this man’s traumas and indiscretions so clearly. It’s an uncomfortable and distressing performance that goes into what a man can do in the confines of war.
Supporting this performance are two very different, but equally enjoyable performances from Carla Juri and Imelda Staunton. Juri has somewhat built a reputation for meek, but eccentric roles in films like Wetlands and Blade Runner 2049, and in essence, she is doing pretty much the same thing here, albeit getting much more physical action. This expanded presence gives Juri a chance to shine in English-language cinema she hasn’t had before apart from bit roles. Staunton, one of the great character actors of British cinema, delivers yet another wondrously devilish performance (excuse the pun) as the treacherous Sister Claire. There are so many fun levels to this performance that it feels like she often exists as a pull from the darker, heavier elements of the story to provide some campy fun.
And Amulet is pretty damn dark. Functioning as a critique on immigration, war, rape culture (definitely a trigger warning for those looking to avoid that content) and religion, Garai takes a lot of heavy material under her belt with her first feature, and, for the most part, it pays off. There are definitely poignant elements that get a bit lost in the film’s relatively short 99-minute runtime, but what works, works wonders in creating a truly stomach-dropping source of dread.
Amulet is also punctuated by an absolutely stunning score from first time film composer Sarah Angliss, who utilizes religious chants and hymns layered over each other with an insane amount of angst and fear conjured from said compositions. It’s the perfect mix of religious frigidity, droning ambience, and spine-chilling horror that goes into making a great score.
The finale of Amulet takes you places that even the second act twists fail to prepare you for, which definitely might come out of left field for some audiences, but the insane, almost campy tone the film takes in its final moments punctuates a dense, unforgiving film with a little bit of macabre fun that I couldn’t help but just smile and gasp over. It’s weird as hell and that’s what makes it such a delight to watch. It all comes together to establish Garai as a force to watch in modern horror that aims high and generally delivers on her promises. There are some themes and gestures that get lost in translation to the screen, but for such an ambitious and unique debut, one certainly is left wondering what other unexpected things remain up Garai’s sleeve.
Available on VOD beginning July 24th, 2020.
Head to Amulet’s official website for more information.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.