Director/Co-Writer Natalie Erika James feature-length debut Relic is as powerful a drama as you will see this year. James’ film works as both a truly frightening haunted house film and a searing allegory for dementia.
Relic is the rare horror film that deals in allegory but never feels preachy. Further rarity finds three amazing female performances in Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote, and Robyn Niven.
Kay (Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Heathcote) drive out to the country to find Kay’s mother Edna (Niven) who has vanished. They eventually find Edna, changed, or at least to Sam who has not seen her for some time. Kay has already had her suspicions for some time. Though, it is not just dementia that has gripped Edna, something more sinister. As Kay and Sam begin to realize Edna is not who she appears to be it may be too late.
The most frightening moments of the film are not the traditional horror set-pieces but the moments between the women as Edna is clearly becoming more and more dissonant with reality. Robyn Niven is heartbreaking as Edna. Relic asks so much of the actor as her character dives deeper into the darkness of dementia. Not just performative moments of the disease taking her mental facility but the moments of trans-figurative horror. The balancing act is so acutely sharp that it doesn’t feel like a performance at all.
Niven is supported by both Mortimer and Heathcote in the best sense of the word. Mortimer has gotten better and better as a performer with age. Kay carries so much weight and history in every scene, oftentimes without a single word spoken directly to that history. James’ adept script allows for the spaces to be filled in with physicality and Mortimer runs with it. Heathcote comes into her own here as an actor. The work she does stands toe-to-toe with both Niven and Mortimer. Of note is the actor’s work against Niven which is as good as anything you’ll see this year. The moment between the two are as scary as they are emotional as they are harrowing.
Natalie Erika James’ film is as assured a debut feature to come along in a very long time. The co-writer/director’s film shows a powerful skill in the first-time filmmaker; restraint. That restraint is shown in the way that Relic chooses emotion over scares, in character over thrills. The restraint when unleashed its momentum slowly and quietly to one of the most emotionally devastating final scenes, and shots, in recent memory.
Relic is not only one of the best films of the year but one of the most haunting. The film is also an announcement that filmmaker Natalie Erika James’ is a unique and talented storyteller.