‘Amulet’: Film Review

An English home provides new terrors for a PTSD-afflicted refugee in actress Romola Garai's striking directorial debut.

Romola Garai
Carla Juri, Alec Secareanu, Imelda Staunton, Anah Ruddin

Running time: 99 MIN.

Actress Romola Garai makes a distinctive feature directorial debut with “Amulet,” even if this upscale horror drama is ultimately more impressive in the realm of style than substance. It’s some style, though: She hasn’t just created a stylish potboiler, but a densely textured piece that makes for a truly arresting viewing experience to a point. A shame then that the film succumbs somewhat to the more pretentious and silly aspects of Garai’s initially cryptic puzzle of a script.

Amulet” is definitely the kind of joint that will irk mainstream genre fans for being too “arty,” and for not pouring on the kills or gore (though neither are entirely lacking). Still, more adventurous types will grok the distinctive vision on display in this split-level narrative of terrors bred by both war and more unearthly evils.

It takes a while before we get our basic bearings in the early going, when an overload of intercut unsettling but often beautiful imagery mirrors the dislocation suffered by our protagonist. We eventually realize that in the present tense, Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) is among many refugees who’ve landed in England fleeing poverty or violence at home — in his case, what looks like the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. But while scant time may have passed since he fled, it’s hard to reconcile this furry, furtive man with the clean-shaven youth seen in flashbacks. Then, Tomaz was lucky to get out of active fighting, being stationed alone at a checkpoint on a little-traveled rural road miles from the nearest village.

Now, he works construction jobs for under-the-table sustenance pay while staying in a squat with other refugees. His PTSD is such that he binds his arms and feet with duct tape to prevent causing self-harm during night terrors. That makes escape difficult when some presumed anti-immigrant fanatic sets fire to the place, and he barely escapes alive. Waking in a hospital, Tomaz discovers he and his precious few belongings were saved by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton).

Popular on Variety

As his roll of cash is now gone, he must accept the nun’s further generosity in providing him a free place to stay in return for “helping” Magda (Carla Juri), an awkward, suspicious, unworldly young woman. Her large but dilapidated house is in sore need of some basic repairs. Tomaz is indeed handy, but she seems resistant to his arrival, while he won’t stay where he isn’t wanted. Nonetheless, he does decide to remain — primarily from pity, when he realizes that the painfully, terminally ill mother hidden upstairs not only keeps her daughter a virtual prisoner here, but violently abuses her as well.

The two shy strangers gradually begin to warm toward each other. But this unhappy home is hardly a place for Tomaz to forget the past that torments him. As it unfolds in flashbacks, this involves his taking in Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia), a mother who collapsed at his guard post in the dangerous war zone, while trying to rejoin a daughter across the border. Meanwhile, things grow ever more sinister at Chez Magda, where black mold covers the walls, a hideous batlike creature is found clogging the toilet, and the equally monstrous Mother (Anah Ruddin) makes her malevolent presence felt well before Tomaz lays appalled eyes on her.

The climax, which makes a leap into CGI fantasy imagery, draws obscure connection between that fatefully intervening nun, a strange talisman young Tomaz once found in the forest, and some eternal evil that requires self-sacrificing human caretakers. As a mythology, it’s a bit too little too late, and as scary cinema, it isn’t, very. Yet it’s easy to forgive “Amulet’s” ultimate story shortcomings while wallowing in the oft-queasy yet sumptuous atmospherics Garai lays on before things first get a little ponderous, then a bit gaga.

“Amulet” may recall some other out-there auteurist horror opuses, from Zanussi’s “Possession” to two other striking recent debut features, the Brit “Possum” and German-Austrian “Hagazussa.” But it has a feel all its own, with a range of imaginative conceptual and technical strategies each deployed by DP Laura Bellingham, production designer Francesca Massariol, editor Alastair Reid and composer Sarah Angliss. If the highly worked aesthetic package sometimes risks mannerism for its own sake, these accomplished, often near-abstract individual elements mostly mesh in a way that marks Garai as a filmmaker with a sensibility that’s fully formed on arrival.

Her actors also work very well in what must have been a somewhat challenging context, having to maintain various character ambiguities and tease viewer doubt with limited dialogue or explication. Best-known abroad for Francis Lee’s superb 2017 “God’s Own Country,” Romanian co-star Secareanu gives another powerfully sympathetic performance here, lending Tomaz plenty of haunted depth. Juri and Staunton are fine in differently-scaled parts that both have considerable transformative arcs — albeit not in the shape-shifting sense. That role falls to other figures here, to occasionally icky effects which may partly console horror fans for whom “Amulet” will otherwise be just too much of a weird mood piece.

'Amulet': Film Review

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 27, 2020. Running time: 99 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) An AMP International, Northern Stories presentation in association with Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, Kreo Films of a Stigma Films production with Summercourt Films. (Int'l sales: AMP, London.) Producers: Maggie Monteith, Matthew James Wilkinson. Executive producers: Damian Jones, Chris Reed, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Reinhard Besser, Pat Wintersgill, Walter Mair. Co-producer: Robyn Forsythe.

Crew: Director, writer: Romola Garai. Camera: Laura Bellingham. Editor: Alastair Reid. Music: Sarah Angliss.

With: Carla Juri, Alec Secareanu, Imelda Staunton, Anah Ruddin, Angeliki Papoulia, Elowen Harris, Joseph Akubeze, Jacqueline Roberts.

More Film

  • Father

    'Father': Film Review

    “Father” begins with a mother. Dragging her two sullen, uncomprehending kids along with her, Biljana (Nada Šargin) strides onto the grounds of the factory from which her husband was let go more than a year before and harangues the foreman about the severance package they still have not received. The children are hungry, she wails, [...]

  • Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm

    'Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street': Film Review

    In 1985, New Line rushed out a sequel to its breakout horror hit of the prior year. But while commercially successful enough, “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” was initially disliked by mainstream horror fans, then later won cult status, for the same reason: It struck many as “the gayest horror film of [...]

  • Leaving Neverland HBO

    HBO Seeks Dismissal of Michael Jackson Estate's Suit Over 'Leaving Neverland'

    HBO urged an appeals court on Friday to throw out litigation brought by the Michael Jackson estate over the 2019 documentary “Leaving Neverland.” HBO and the Jackson estate have been locked in a legal war ever since the premium cable network agreed to run the documentary, which chronicles child sexual abuse allegations against Jackson. The [...]

  • Denzel Washington

    Film News Roundup: Denzel Washington-Rami Malek Thriller Set for Early 2021 Release

    In today’s film news roundup, a Denzel Washington-Rami Malek thriller gets a release date, “Escape Room 2” gets moved, Paramount sets a double feature, “So Cold the River” wraps and the Sonoma Film Festival unveils its lineup. RELEASE DATES Warner Bros. has set the Denzel Washington-Rami Malek police thriller “The Little Things” for a Jan. 29, [...]

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Writers Guild Says It Helped Negotiate 100 Deals for Agent-Less Members

    The Writers Guild of America has asserted that it has assisted in negotiating more than 100 deals in recent months for members without agents. The missive from the WGA West board of directors comes nearly a year after the guild leaders ordered their 15,000 members to fire their agents if the agents had not agreed [...]

  • the jesus rolls

    Émilie Simon Contributes Flamenco/Gypsy Vibe to John Turturro's ‘The Jesus Rolls’

    For French musician Émilie Simon, the flamenco-meets-gypsy vibe writer-director John Turturro was seeking for the soundtrack to his movie “The Jesus Rolls” turned out to be in her musical and genetical DNA. “This music originally comes from where I grew up in the south of France,” says the 41-year-old electronic musician, who has released five [...]

  • My Hero Academia Heroes Rising

    'My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising' ADR Director on Adapting the Anime for a U.S. Audience

    “My Hero Academia” has officially Detroit Smashed into North American theaters. Sony Pictures Television’s Funimation released “Heroes Rising” in the U.S. on Wednesday, grossing $2.5 million on its opening day. Theaters are showing the film, a standalone entry in the popular superhero anime based on the manga, with options for either subtitles or with an [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content