Like the other horror film released this week (The Rental, reviewed here), Romola Garai’s Amulet aspires to something impressive within contemporary genre features. It is a gorgeous production (making her feature directorial debut, Garai hits a home run with cinematographer Laura Bellingham), and the filmmaker (who also wrote the original script) makes some intriguing choices around gender roles in genre films. But on the whole, the story of a former soldier who finds himself living with a woman, her elderly mother and the demons in their crumbling old home leaves too many gaps in its story to be considered mysterious, and though Garai and her team don’t skimp on the gruesome details, the payoff ends up being too little too late.
Garai shifts behind the camera after an acting career that gives no real indication of a penchant for scares on display here. I’ve followed her career since she starred opposite Ioan Gruffud, Albert Finney and Michael Gambon in 2006’s Amazing Grace, followed quickly by Joe Wright’s Atonement the next year, playing a teenage Briony to a then-unknown Saoirse Ronan’s younger version. In 2009, she starred in one of the best adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma in recent memory (and I adored Autumn DeWilde’s version earlier this year). All that to say, Garai has more than a few solid credits to her name, so it seems only natural that she’d start stretching her creative muscles to other aspects of filmmaking. According to the film’s press notes, she started working on the story of Amulet after reading about, of all things, the persecution of rape when used as a war crime. A little light bedside reading, right?
This jumping off point does factor into the finished film, as we learn more about former soldier Tomaz (Alec Secareanu, God’s Own Country), who’d been part of an unnamed conflict that pitted him against civilians resisting against their unnamed oppressors. Through flashbacks, we see that Tomaz had to make (or was free to make) some very difficult choices, ones that one would like to think wouldn’t be what a good, moral human would do during peacetime. Now without anywhere to live after the conflict, he’s placed as a boarder (by Sister Claire, a deviously delightful Imelda Staunton) with Magda (Carla Juri) and her elderly mother in their big, old home. He can stay with them as long as he needs and work on the house to earn his keep. Magda is skeptical at first, and Mother (Anah Ruddin) is an essentially unseen presence, as she never leaves her attic rooms.
Before too long, it’s clear something is amiss. Magda doesn’t want him digging too deep into the house’s issues or repair needs, starting with a toilet that hasn’t worked in ages. Tomaz insists, and works to fix the thing as best he can. When the bowl finally drains, its revealed what’s been clogging it up, and it is as disgusting as it is freaky as hell. Garai doesn’t shy away from the scares in these moments; this isn’t a film where the threat is lurking off-screen. It’s right there, screeching and bloody, in our faces. Tomaz and Magda settle into a sort of creepy coexistence, but soon they can’t deny Mother’s haunting presence. Tomaz comes face to face with her and, with the help of Sister Claire (who’s not at all who she seems to be), discovers just what’s at work in the old house he’s moved into. And it’s not pretty.
During his time stationed as a guard, Tomaz discovered a stone amulet buried in the woods, and he’s kept it with him ever since. He even shows it to Magda at one point, as they inevitably grow closer during their time living together. That it’s the amulet of the title is clear, but here’s where Garai loses us: there’s never a single clue about what the damn thing is, what it means, who put it there for Tomaz to find…nothing. Though the figure does come back into play, in a way, in the final moments of the film, it’s nevertheless a massive missed opportunity at world-building within the confines of the film. Leaving the amulet’s meaning or origins ambiguous leaves space to fill in the blanks however one might like, but it seems like quite a central part of the film to leave undefined.
By the time Tomaz has gone too far into this new, demonic world to turn back, Garai finally gets around to revealing the true nature of what’s at work in Mother and those around her. The reveal is on par with the film’s earlier scares, both in production and delivery, and there’s certainly something redemptive about seeing Tomaz get what’s due him—he can’t escape the crimes he committed as a soldier, no matter how much he’d like nothing more than to just return to “normal.” It’s also in the film’s final moments that choice to gender-swap the genre’s typical roles is glaringly evident. Surrounded by women in varying states of grief, denial, demonic possession and more, Tomaz has no choice but to be at their mercy—or their peril. If one can suspend enough attention to the details Garai essentially glosses over to get to her payoff, there’s certainly something captivating about her approach to the genre. At the very least (and if she keeps working with Bellingham), Amulet positions her as a new filmmaker to watch. Hopefully her next film learns from the shortcomings of her first.