I tend to judge a film as “good” if it’s essentially well made, well-acted, and doesn’t bore me. Whether I judge it as “great” or not really depends on the feelings the film leaves me with afterwards. Sometimes, like the taste of wine, there can be a number of feelings in sequence, so I try not to be hasty. Natalie Erika James’s Relic was like that: a film both simple and complex, with layers of feelings.
Kay (Emily Mortimer) has been worried about her elderly mother for a little while; widowed, living far away and kind of erratic. When she gets a call to say Edna (Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been seen lately, she and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) take a drive to appraise the situation and help as best they can. Edna is not there, and it looks like she’s not been there for a good few days, judging by the state of the full bowl of rotting fruit. When Edna reappears, it becomes apparent she’s still not entirely all there, at least not for much of the time.
We are given minimal background about these three, but all we need for Relic is their most essential details and their personalities and contrasting outlooks are given all the space they need to emerge. Kay’s intellect and career only allow her to treat Edna’s fluctuating condition with pragmatism, talking to her rationally but like a child, and researching care homes for a straightforward solution to Edna’s behaviours and fears. Sam is much more flighty in her own life and accepts her Gran as someone who simply needs affection and autonomy. Edna—like many people heading towards dementia—is either unaware or in denial of her condition (except for some rare, painful moments) and cannot see her independence changing. Underneath these differences, all three adore each other.
What is fascinating, touching, and deeply thought-provoking is the way each woman changes (in herself and towards the others) as the black cloud over them spreads. Kay becomes warmer towards her mother, Sam is overwhelmed, and Edna pretty much falls apart. Everyone reacts to changes and crises in their own ways, and I found it stressful and almost nauseous just watching to see whether they noticed what was going on and whether they found the capacity to face it together.
This growing menace hovering over the home is maybe a spirit of the past, maybe a metaphor for Edna’s deterioration, or maybe a manifestation of how they all feel about the situation. Some may consider it clear, but to me, it is ambiguous, open to all those interpretations and possibly others. I like that in films, and respect it hugely when done well; ambiguity can be baffling or feed debate. This menace, it—whatever it is—starts subtly and slowly, with Post-It notes Edna leaves herself, an unexplained bruise and odd patches of mould around the house. But the whole house seems to creak, the attic spawns new dusty corridors of clutter, decay multiplies as the three women lose themselves to their “family crisis”.
This house is a frankly miraculous film set, which—like other aspects of Relic—changes imperceptibly to reflect whatever it needs to. It appears civilised and well looked after on the outside, old and unwanted on the inside (Edna does talk about how the house feels very different since losing her husband). Then a random appliance seems to have a life of its own, and then corridors and the air moving through them, all while Edna too becomes less and less herself. Interestingly, the turning point in the film, from real to surreal, seems to happen when Kay gazes upon the door of another small house on the estate, from before the time Edna’s family settled there; history and age alike are inescapable from what this film tells us.
Natalie Erika James’ direction is remarkable, seamlessly developing a slow burn domestic drama into sinister and then physical horror. The very slight plot pauses at moments of changing tone, with music leading us to meditate on what we choose until we see what’s next. And this is also remarkable; although at first, I thought I knew what I was watching, nothing, not a second of it was predictable. Sure, some of it reminded me of other films, but intimations of familiarity didn’t let me stay comfortable for long.
Brian Reitzell’s score surrounds almost every scene—especially those pauses—with a haunting backdrop. Just as unhurried as the script, the music refuses to let us relax. This is most effective in the final scenes when the sparse instrumental melody follows the trio through pain into acceptance, and then the same music into the closing credits; there is no up-tempo change to lighten us on the way home.
I’m aware I’ve hardly mentioned the word “horror”, though that is Relic’s reputation. Horror films have certainly been used effectively to explore mental health and neurological conditions before, with Deborah Logan as a zombie, Daniel Isn’t Real presenting a split personality as a supernatural “friend”, and Dead Dicks giving us a deep dive into suicidal depression. The realm of the fantastical allows writers and directors to express concepts and fears in visual and visceral ways when necessary. Relic certainly feels like a blend of drama and horror, especially by the end, and especially because of the empathy I develop for its characters.
There is nothing special about these women. These three women are not the muses, not the fates or a triple deity: they are us. They are certainly me; as I am, as I was and as I will be. I’m a mother and a daughter, I worry about my distant parents and can’t bear to think about how I’ll manage old age. Relic gave me anxious butterflies when I watched it last night, and a second view just now brought me to tears. I’m starting a new life this year, but my history will always be behind me and age in front of me, inescapable facts of life. Relic shows me there are countless others taking the journey with me: it’s one we all take, like it or not.