Relic draws upon the tradition of exploring grief through the horror genre, resulting in a wonderfully atmospheric film that combines family drama and haunted house tropes to generate feelings of dread and sorrow. It’s a sophisticated and confident debut feature by filmmaker Natalie Erika James whose distinctive voice ensures that Relic holds its own against films that employ a similar approach to horror and personal trauma such The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014), The Orphanage (JA Bayona, 2007) or even older classics such as Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973).
Relic features three generations of women – Edna (Robyn Nevin), her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) – who are staying at Edna’s old house in the regional town Creswick. Kay and Sam originally go to the house to search for Kay, who has gone missing, and have to confront the fact that Kay may be suffering from dementia. The strain of the situation on the three women, who are already coping with different degrees of estrangement from each other, manifests emotionally in feelings of anger, guilt and fear, while the deeper psychological feelings of abandonment, confinement and betrayal are articulated through the film’s production design and narrative.
Initially Relic plays a rewarding game of keeping the audience unsure of what is going on, teasing us with imagery and events that may or may not be imagined by the characters in order to create mystery about whether something supernatural is at play or if the viewer is sharing a less-than-reliable perspective of one or more of the characters. This allows a wonderfully slow and tense built up of uneasiness while also allowing the dynamic between the three women to play out as a satisfying character drama. The early horror elements are mostly in the realm of the uncanny with startling imagery conveying decay and dereliction, as opposed to delivering conventional scares and shocks, which gives the film a mood and texture that gets under the skin.
As Relic reaches its crescendo the physical space of the film and the bruised bodies of the characters overtly take the form of their psychological states. The sense of threat is palpable and the body horror imagery is startling, and yet the film ultimately opts for a resolution that is far more ambiguous that anticipated. This is one of its strengths as a conventional or literal explanation about what unfolds would have been cumbersome. Instead, throughout the whole film, Relic prioritises a profound emotional truth that is one of great sadness about somebody suffering from dementia who becomes a stranger to not just their loved ones, but to themselves.
Is Relic a hopeful film about the potential for family members to reconnect in the face of extreme adversity, or is it mourning a tragic inevitability about human frailty? Part of its beauty is that viewers will very likely be able to project their own reading depending on their own experiences. Either way, this is a film the resonates on a deeply emotional level due to the evocative use of film style by James and her team and the beautifully restrained yet heartfelt performances of the film’s three leads. Relic is a remarkable achievement that will linger in the mind long after the final credits.