Amulet (2020)

Amulet first published by Sight and Sound, March 2022

Review: As a soldier digs a latrine in the woods near his remote border post in an unnamed, war-torn Balkan country, he unearths a small statuette of a pagan mother goddess – the titular ‘amulet’. This prologue to actress Romola Garai’s feature debut as writer/director introduces an irrational juxtaposition of the primordial, folkloric forest and the modern world, of primitive religion and contemporary realism, of the sacrosanct and the sordid. Amulet then cuts to some time later, as that soldier, the philosophy student Tomas (Alec Secareanu), now lives and labours illegally in England. In a crowded squat, he sleeps with his wrists bound – a sign that this quiet, considerate mamma’s boy has become arrested by knowledge of his own capacities, as he tries to restrain something bestial gestating within himself. By a peculiar causal chain, his bonds will slow his flight from the squat after a fire breaks out, leading him to be found, collapsed in the street, by the local nun Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton). 

“Forward is not the only way, Tomas,” Claire will tell this man who is trying to move on from the burden of his memories. As Amulet itself keeps switching between Tomas’ unfolding present and the past that so haunts him, Claire suggests he move in and help maintain the dilapidated old suburban house where Magda (Carla Juri) – also a foreigner – has become prisoner to her self-sacrificing care for a moribund mother. In pious Magda, Tomas sees the possibility of an escape from his history to a better life ruled by devotion, service – and perhaps even the desire that he has for so long been holding in. Yet in this creaking, mouldy house, with bats in the pipes and mystic carvings in the masonry, Tomas’ desperate attempt to find forgiveness and acceptance might just be initiating him into the mother of all purging rituals, where the particularly feminine pangs of childbirth are both monstrous miracle and primal punishment. 

Rich in its gothic atmosphere and ambitious in its transnational, time-leaping scope, Amulet is a slippery film – part psychodrama of guilt and (self-)torment, part saga of elaborate rape-revenge by proxy, part grotesque body horror, part maternal mystery play, and if not a cult film, certainly a film about a cult, where from the start, Tomas seems bound by his own divided nature to a rite of painful, cyclical renewal. Refusing to oversimplify, Garai gives good qualities to people who do bad things, and so confounds the viewer’s sense of moral sympathy, while finding internalised – and maternalised – expression for the conflicts of man. 

Synopsis: UK, today. Living illegally in England and in flight from his guilty past, civil war veteran Tomas takes a handyman’s job in an old house where young Magda is nursing her invalid mother. Even as Tomas starts imagining a new life with Magda, he might be falling into a sinister, supernatural trap.

strap: In Romola Garai’s gothic ‘cult’ feature debut, a conflicted man is taught a lesson in the pain of women

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Spotlight: Romola Garai

In 2000, Romola Garai had her first professional acting rôle in the BBC-HBO telemovie The Last of the Blonde Bombshells  – an auspicious beginning, given that she was cast as the younger version of a lead character (Elizabeth) played by none other than the mighty Judi Dench. Ever since, Garai has often been seen in lead rôles herself on stage and screen. She has taken principal parts in the teleseries The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005), Emma (2009), The Hour (2011-12) and The Miniaturist (2017), and starred in features like Tim Fywell’s I Capture The Castle (2003), Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair (2004), François Ozon’s Angel (2007), Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace (2008), Ruairi Robinson’s The Last Days on Mars (2013) and most recently Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Earwig (2021). 

After heading to the Syrian-Iraqi border in 2009 to helm the documentary short No Man’s Land for the UNHCR, Garai turned her hand in 2012 to writing and directing her own short film Scrubber, about a young mother having to choose between reality and flights of fancy. She followed this more recently with her directorial feature debut, the highly accomplished horror Amulet (2020), working from her own original screenplay.