Dir: Natalie Erika James. Starring: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Chris Bunton, Jeremy Stanford. 15, 89 mins
It’s hard to shake the memory of the mould in Relic – splattered like paint, making trails up the walls, pooling into miniature black holes. What’s so disturbing is the sense that it’s constantly, imperceptibly on the move. It’s that slow creep that lies at the heart of Natalie Erika James’s debut film. Co-written with author Christian White, her debut is the richest, most satisfying brand of chiller there is – a knot of emotions cut through by scares that are too clever to scream for attention. The most frightening things are signalled by the smallest of movements. What was that in the shadows? Why are there sounds of dragging and clanging coming from the walls?
There’s an obvious metaphor to be drawn. Jennifer Kent’s Babadook was the spectre of depression, albeit with teeth and claws. James, a Japanese-Australian filmmaker, has turned the haunted house into a manifestation of dementia. Edna (Robyn Nevin) has gone missing. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) return to her home in rural Victoria to look for her. They find rooms filled with the detritus of a long life, now becoming untethered. That terrible mould is in every corner. Days pass without any sign of her. Then, suddenly, the rattle of a boiling kettle in the kitchen announces her return. She is barefoot, disoriented. Her long, grey hair has clotted into muddy tendrils. The only mark on her is a dark, blotchy bruise on her chest. When pushed for an explanation, all she can say is: “I suppose I went out.”
All the familiar signs of mental deterioration are there: the furniture’s been moved around, treasured belongings have ended up in the bin, and there are Post-it notes everywhere. Among the banal, written reminders to take pills or do chores lie three ominous words: “Don’t follow it.” And yet, James’s film is more fluid in its themes than it might seem. Yes, it speaks to our fears of dementia, as the house begins to mimic Edna’s fractured mind, twisting and shrinking around Kay and Sam. But Charlie Sarroff, the film’s cinematographer, injects every frame with a gloomy sense of oppression. Even the woods behind Edna’s house feel claustrophobic.
Relic reminds us that those things we inherit from our parents – diseases, personalities, and fates – cannot be escaped. Kay dreams every night of her great grandfather’s cabin. There’s a patch of mould there, the only remaining mark of someone who was neglected, even in their very last moments. Death, decay, inheritance – they pace around the family in circles, closing in tighter and tighter. Nevin, Mortimer, and Heathcote all offer perfect pictures of fear and despair.
Their eyes are wide, their words hesitant and often veiled in hidden meaning. Kay visits a nursing home, which she’s cheerfully told is really just “independent living with the edges taken off“. Afterwards, she sits in the car and weeps. It’s a brief but moving show of vulnerability from Mortimer, who’s spent the entire film trying to swallow her sadness, only to let it out here in great, racking sobs. She’s a woman twice-haunted – by both supernatural and earthly pains.