3 out of 5 stars

“I want to go home. I want to go back.” These are the heartbreaking words of Edna (Robyn Nevin), the matriarch at the centre of writer-director Natalie Erika James’ Relic, as she battles increasingly severe dementia. It suggests a desire to not just go home, but return to the past. For those who know someone dealing with this dreadful disease, Relic will certainly hit home, and it’s just one way in which horror is manifested in an interesting and emotional film. 

When Edna goes missing, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) set up at her country home in case she returns. As they wait, they discover Post-it notes dotted around the place (with reminders such as “take pills” and “don’t follow it”), that Edna’s armchair has been ominously turned to face outside, and mysterious patches of mould. Of course, Edna eventually turns up in the dead of night, but is reluctant to reveal where she’s been. Sam is more sympathetic and even offers to move in and help out, whereas Kay takes a tour of a care home in Melbourne, raising sensitive questions of how best we should look after our elderly. This is also hinted at during a moment where Kay checks under the bed for Edna, something which is typically done for a child by a parent. 

Much of the film’s first two thirds burn at a slow pace (which is a drag at times), laced with transitions of fading images and the sound of breathing—suggesting a supernatural presence. The origins of the horror which unfolds, besides Edna’s Alzheimer’s, remains foggy throughout; a window which once belonged to an outhouse on the property’s original land, which has been fit into Edna’s front door, seems to be the source. Relic waists no time pointlessly explaining how or why, it simply shows us what. 

It does, however, share a problem which I’ve always felt afflict Ari Aster’s films Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019): they fall apart in the final third. In Relic, Sam winds up in a labyrinthine collection of the house’s corridors, which close in on her as she moves through them. And, as Edna takes a bath, her body begins decaying (the theme of decay is a strong element in Relic, from a bowl of decomposing fruit near the film’s start to the mould in the house) before which she begins chasing Sam and Kay through the aforementioned corridors. Neither of these sequences make a lot of sense or have much thematic relevance; there’s a feeling in the writing they just advance the plot so we can reach the end. 

Even if this was read as an analogy of Sam working her way through a physical manifestation of Edna’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mind, it feels weak without a little more explanation. The climax, to be fair, will take viewers by surprise. Whereas most of the film feels like a standard haunted house horror with the themes of ageing and dementia pasted over it (which worked terrifically in Netflix’s His House in addressing the refugee crisis), the ending is unique and poignantly ties things up nicely, making Relic a film which makes more emotional sense than logical. 

Kudos must go to Relic’s sound department, as the sound editing and mixing really breathe life into the movie. Every bump and scratch from behind the house’s walls, to the respiratory fades between sequences, keep things interesting when there’s not much happening on screen. And although the three central performances are all solid, Robyn Nevin stands out in her portrayal of a frail old woman in the fearful grips of a mercilessly cruel disease. Her looks of bemusement as her daughter and granddaughter try to guide her or her furiously confused outbursts are all heartbreaking to watch. 

Although Relic widely conforms to genre norms, it is also unique at times and is an encouraging feature debut from writer-director Natalie Erika James. More unsettling than poignant, it stands out from a number of other recent releases which also address dementia, including Supernova (2020), The Father (2020), and Falling (2020). Although far from perfect, Relic will hit home much more with viewers who’ve experienced, or know someone who’s experienced, suffering with dementia, while raising sensitive but important questions on how best to care for old people.

AUSTRALIA • USA | 2020 | 89 MINUTES |  2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Blu-ray Special Features:

The Blu-ray disc was unavailable for review due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the bonus material breaks down as follows…

  • London Film Festival 2020 – Natalie Erika James Intro and a Q&A hosted by Michael Blyth.
  • Interviews.
  • Relic Shoot Timelapse.
  • Behind the Scenes—“Lost” & “Stunts”.
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Cast & Crew

director: Natalie Erika James.
writers: Natalie Erika James, Christian White.
starring: Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote, Chris Bunton, Jeremy Stanford & Steve Rodgers.