“Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children” – William Makepeace Thackeray
Horror films so often address the changing lives of women. Turning transitional phases into things misunderstood and fearful. Brian DePalma’s Carrie (1976) (and Kimberly Pierce’s underrated 2013 remake), and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) addressed puberty, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), pregnancy. These changes are shown as a danger to those around them, as their volatile behaviour is personified in the demons that torment those who love them. Natalie Erika James’s debut feature, Relic addresses a similar trope. But as a woman tells this story, tender details that would normally be lost are focused on, and the transition is shown with fearful tragic sympathy. The distortion with which we see those who raised us becomes central, reflected back, as the eldest family member’s dementia corrupts everything around them.
Edna (Robyn Nevin) has disappeared, and her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) go to her house to assist in the search to find her. When they arrive they find notes reminding Edna to take her pills and turn off the taps, the memory issues that caused her to flood her home the previous Christmas have escalated. The house shows signs of mould creeping through it, from the window on the front door and behind the fireplace. When Edna re-appears after three days with no explanation for where she’s been, Kay and Sam need to decide what is best for her. Her shifting moods and a slow loss of self, begin to affect not only Edna, but the home she has made her life in. The “Relic” of the title refers to the pieces of herself lost as she slowly erodes, eventually becoming unrecognisable. A term normally reserved for religious artefacts, literal pieces of saints, here it addresses the preciousness of the bond between mother and child. A godlike reverence and a responsibility to care as she has cared.
James’s direction, and writing, tells you that she has first-hand experience and knowledge of losing a family member in this way. The utter powerlessness of it and the fear is expressed slowly at first and then escalates at the end as the characters no longer know which way to turn and how to escape. Ultimately the only way through is acceptance, and recognising that this happens to all of us, one way or another. Underneath the terrifying shell of the disease, that family member is still there, waiting and vulnerable, and needing support and love. Alongside accepting their own mortality.
This year, of all years, the need to be with our loved ones as they pass feels prescient and real. As so many are left alone, Relic will resonate everywhere. Simply wishing for one last chance to say goodbye. For those who have suffered losses this year, this will be hard to watch. It feels however as though it is an important film, and one that will remind us to value those who raised us, and respect them as they change into something we might no longer recognise.
Dir: Natalie Erika James
Scr: Natalie Erika James, Christian White
Cast: Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote
Prd: Jake Gyllenhall, Riva Marker, Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw
Music: Brian Reitzell
DOP: Charlie Saroff
Run time: 89 minutes
Signature Entertainment presents Relic on Digital HD 8 January and Blu-ray & DVD 18 January 2021