FILM REVIEW – RELIC. With Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote. Written by Natalie Erika James and Christian White. Directed by Natalie Erika James. Rated R for some horror violence/disturbing images and language. 89 minutes.
Something timid this way comes
There’s a sinister strain of mildew working its way around the windowpanes and other household surfaces in RELIC, director Natalie Erika James’ anemic new haunted house picture that will have you reaching for the Clorox wipes. Set on cluttered estate somewhere in the woods outside of Melbourne, it’s a movie about inevitable decay, with a rather rancid-looking rot eating away at all the wallpaper and now grandma, too. Elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin) wandered off a few nights ago and turned up in the kitchen three days later barefoot in her nightgown with no memory of where she’d been, boasting a big, black bruise on her chest that’s blossoming in the same strange pattern as that fungus on her filthy walls. What a drag it is getting mold.
Metaphor alert!: “Relic” is actually about the indignities and horrors of old age, with Edna’s encroaching dementia manifesting itself through supernatural means because otherwise this would be another Alzheimer’s movie and those are awfully hard to watch. It’s a pretty good idea that’s squandered in the screenplay by James and her co-writer Christian White, who skimp on character development in favor of long scenes in which overqualified actresses walk wide-eyed and gape-mouthed down darkened hallways. Sometimes things go bump in the night.
Edna’s aloof, semi-estranged daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) wants to put her in a home while perky granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) suggests moving in and helping out. There’s a lot of family history hinted at here, including some strange flashbacks to a great grandfather dying of what appears to be supernatural causes in a shack somewhere on the family property. The stained-glass window from the old man’s dwelling has been transplanted into Edna’s house, possibly bringing with it some sort of family curse but about such things “Relic” remains purposefully, frustratingly vague.
Given the paucity of characters and grim determinism of the scenario, there’s not much that can really happen in the movie before the inevitable ending, so we’re stuck with long, languorous dream sequences that overstay their welcome and underdeveloped red herring side characters, like a disabled boy next door who Edna once lied about locking in a closet. It’s no surprise at all to learn that “Relic” is an expansion of James’ highly regarded 2017 short “Creswick,” as at less than 90 minutes it still feels stretched beyond the breaking point.
These are three excellent actresses and it’s a shame the film doesn’t allow them many chances to actually talk to one another. These characters are so sparsely written that there’s no momentum behind the film’s emotional final act. James botches a central visual conceit of a corridor that appears to expand and contract of its own accord, trapping people behind living room walls. It’s the kind of thing that sounds nifty on paper but in execution is muddled and confusing to watch. The final scene in “Relic” is easily the movie’s best, calling upon feelings of empathy and understanding otherwise missing from this thin stylistic exercise.•••
Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality