Relic Review (BFI London Film Festival 2020)

Quietly effective Aussie horror Relic’s messaging might not be the most subtle, but it at least operates with a lighter hand when it comes to its scares – rejecting cheap thrills to focus on performance and design to set out its eerie tone.

Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) home is a place forgotten by time, plagued by black mould and crumbling at its foundations. The subdued pastel colours of the house’s furnishings and the desaturation of the in-camera colour drain the film of life, everything on screen sapped of joy. The setting, in turn, is reflected in Edna herself; the same darkness that shrouds her home doing just the same to her, with a bruising decay spreading across her chest. Suffering from dementia whilst simultaneously haunted by the echos of her past, she’s slowly drawn into isolation, left to rot with her house by her estranged family. It’s only when Edna goes missing that her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) show up to join the search for her whereabouts, their arrival unleashing a tidal wave of generational mother issues.

Emily Mortimer as Kay.

If it sounds like an oppressive setup, well that’s because it is. Relic excels in exploring the fractious dynamic between the different generations of the family and presents the perfect environment to test their limits. The youngest of the trio Sam provides the emotional grounding as Edna’s condition worsens, while the repressed Kay struggles with her mum’s deterioration and a guilty conscience. The crux of the tension comes from Kay’s indecision over her mother’s care, and the contradiction between what’s best for her and what’s best for her mum. Safe to say, it’s not all plain sailing, with Kay falling victim to Edna’s judgement on more than one occasion, Robyn Nevin delivering some of the most frightful hard stares since Paddington. Aside from Nevin’s unsettling performance though, it’s not likely to go down as the scariest of jaunts. This is a film drenched in melancholy, with mood trumping bumps and jumps. Yet it doesn’t quite manage to hold its restraint for its duration, the final act ratcheting up to levels of bluster uncharacteristic of the rest of the film, taking away from the quieter contemplation that it does so well up to then. But the message comes across loud and clear nonetheless: look after your elders, people!

Rating (out of 5):

***

Relic was part of the programme at the BFI London Film Festival 2020.

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