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Amulet review – Romola Garai’s elegant slow-burn horror

Sickly, beautiful, though somewhat slight, this debut feature from the actor-turned-director works familiar tropes in an effective way

There was a time when an actor taking a step behind the camera usually meant a simplistic visual style, though lately that trend has started to turn. Amulet by Romola Garai, a regular fixture in British film and television with appearances in Atonement, Suffragette and the forthcoming Earwig, is an exquisitely shot film, set in some kind of netherworld London that is obviously the 21st century but feels like it’s stuck 100 years in the past – a world of yellowing wallpaper, crumbling plaster, and mould on the ceiling.

Amulet is firmly part of the spate of slow-burn, atmosphere driven horror of the past few years, which you might choose to call “arthouse horror.” At this point one senses the wave is breaking, and the tropes and stylistic tics of the genre are identifiable enough that, as with slashers and found-footage horrors in decades before, you know what to expect – it just depends how effectively the chess pieces are set up. Gloomy, mysterious protagonists, long static shots, unexplained trauma, subtext as clear as the skies: it's all here.

In this case, gloomy, mysterious protagonist Tomas (Alec Secăreanu) is trying to resolve the expected murky trauma in his past (he used to be a soldier in Romania, guarding a lonely outpost in the forest). Now a homeless immigrant in London, he ends up being rescued by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), who suggests housing him with the equally mysterious Magda (Carla Juri), whose “mother” is locked up in the attic, making strange noises at night, whilst the house around them decays and crumbles away.

The subtext deals with Tomas’ misogyny and fear of motherhood. At his forest outpost, he comes across the collapsed Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia), who is on the run, and cares for her. In London, he immediately sets about working out how to engineer a way for Magda to escape from her duties of care. These impulses, which initially seem well-intentioned, are all gradually revealed as parochial and oppressive, remnants of a psyche that sees women as something to be protected and controlled at all costs.

Its willingness to follow in the now-clearly delineated arthouse horror trappings does hamper Amulet somewhat: the script is severely underwritten and undercooked, spelling out its thematic intentions far too clearly. And whilst the score is suitably ethereal, the sound design leaves a lot to be desired – this is yet another modern film where mumbling and whispering is used to denote seriousness in place of dialogue.

But all that falls away given the stylistic quality of Amulet, which is dreamy, feverish, and arcane. The forest scenes feel damp, chilly and moist in a way that sticks to the inside of your lungs. The scenes inside Magda’s house feel much the same, as the black mould creeps inside your respiratory system. Most importantly, the film leans firmly into Tomas’ gruesome psychological collapse in the final third, delivering both deserved comeuppance and gory shock. When the aesthetics are as confident and as effective as this, the film’s weaknesses seem to matter less.

Amulet is released in UK cinemas on 28 January.

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