There has been something of a resurgence in Gothic-inspired dramas in recent years – with such films as the Du Maurier adaptation My Cousin Rachel (and we have a new version of Rebecca coming this year, directed by Ben Wheatley), The Little Stranger (based on the novel by Sarah Waters), Lady Macbeth, The Beguiled (in the Southern Gothic tradition), Phantom Thread, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (based on the novel by Shirley Jackson), Braid, Beast and The Duke of Burgundy and In Fabric (both directed by Peter Strickland). Folk-horror has also had a spike in popularity, with The Witch, Midsommar, Hagazussa, Gretel & Hansel, Gwen, The Isle, Koko-Di Koko-Da, among others. Now, British actress Romola Garai has taken the ingredients of European folk-horror and a Gothic-infused aesthetic for her directorial debut, Amulet. Garai is no stranger to period dramas in her acting career, with her most prominent roles being in; I Capture the Castle, Vanity Fair, Atonement, Glorious 39, Emma, The Crimson Petal & The White and The Hour. Even though Amulet is set in the present day, it very much has a mid-twentieth-century aesthetic in its production and costume design, making it feel as if the characters are suspended in time or trapped in the past.
It is great to see Romanian actor Alec Secareanu finally getting another starring role in a film, after his breakthrough role in Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country (2017). Here he plays Tomaz, a soldier from an unspecified Eastern-European country, but one that probably borders Russia. He is now a refugee in the UK, but we see frequent flashbacks to his time in an isolated forest, patrolling a border-crossing. He straps his hands together at night, possibly due to sometimes lashing out because of the violent nature of his night-terrors. During one of the flashbacks, we see him dig up the titular amulet in the forest, it is a small figure made of stone or wood, which seems to have a female figurehead and a shell-like motif. In the UK, he is staying in a make-shift camp, probably in Dover or Folkstone and finding some work as a builder, but one night a fire tears through the warehouse where he’s staying. He finds refuge in a church and a kindly nun, Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) takes pity on him and finds accommodation for him. The house is very much in need of a lot of work, so she suggests that he can help as a handyman in return for his food and lodging. The young woman who lives there, Magda (Swiss actress Carla Juri) is caring for her seriously ill, bed-bound mother. This means that mysterious noises emanate from the attic room (the classic Gothic ‘mad woman in the attic’ trope) and Magda frequently comes down with injuries she has sustained while tending to the old woman.
There is no escaping the fact that this is a horror film and there are certain discoveries that Tomaz makes in the house that could provoke a visceral, full-body reaction in the audience. The film feels inspired by 70s Hammer Horror and certainly has a practical feel, in terms of any creature design or effects. The house is very much a character in the film, skilfully designed by Francesca Massariol and its presence is felt through the sound design (by Nick Baldock) – clocks, bells, creaks, telephones, which are incorporated into the score by Sarah Angliss – as well as the crumbling 1950s feel. The house has very much stopped in time – it doesn’t even have electricity (Magda explains this by saying that her mother had been trying to get into the walls to find the wires, possibly to deliberately harm herself). Magda tells Tomaz that an old man left the house to her mother and she finds some shirts and other clothing for him which belonged to this man decades before. When Staunton’s Sister Claire comes back into the film towards the end, her outfit reveal is truly something to behold, thanks to the exceptional costume design by Holly Smart.
The acting from Secareanu and Juri in the central roles and Staunton in her smaller supporting part is fantastic. Both Tomaz and Magda have the classic Gothic trait where we are not sure if they can be trusted. There is the suggestion that Magda is being controlled or gaslit by her mother, but then we are not always sure about who is abusing who. Who has the upper hand between Tomaz, Magda and the unseen but powerful force of the mother is constantly shifting and our sympathies can waiver from one character to another. Something else that comes from world of the Gothic is the malevolent use of food and drink – there is a suggestion that Magda is putting something in the pies and casseroles that Tomaz is suddenly ravenously hungry for and Magda uses the classic device of a home-brewed herbal tea concoction (also used in Crimson Peak and My Cousin Rachel) to subdue her mother. As more is revealed about Tomaz in the beautifully-shot (by cinematographer Laura Bellingham) forest flashbacks, we realise that not everything is black-or-white. Imelda Staunton really sinks her teeth into Sister Claire and almost steals the entire movie towards the end.
Amulet combines many elements – a slow-burn, tension-filled, creeping-dread Gothic horror with some romance and some real-world, contemporary concerns (a refugee from war who has PTSD). It then goes up a gear in the final act, into something more over-the-top and schlocky. This will not work for everyone, certainly, but this balance of genres and tones is mostly handled extremely skilfully by Garai, who only has one short film to her name before this. The subtle performances of Secareanu and Juri also anchor the film, preventing it from spiralling into melodrama. The fact that Garai has both written and directed a film so packed full of complicated ideas and finds innovative ways to convey them is impressive. If you are into Gothic-inspired dramas and folk-horror, there is much to enjoy here. An exciting feature-debut from Romola Garai.