Romola Garai is a well-known actress who has starred in a number of films and TV shows, possibly most notably in Joe Wright's heart-wrenching Atonement. She isn't the first or last actor to cast their talents behind the camera and her first feature film as a director, Amulet, is a particularly assured, if uneven debut.
Amulet follows Tomasz (Alec Secareanu), an ex-soldier with a bad case of PTSD which leaves him with flashbacks and nightmares. Tomasz is invited to stay with Magda (Carla Juri) and her elderly, sick mother by a good-natured nun Claire (Imelda Staunton) who picks up Tomasz after the homeless shelter he lives in is destroyed in a fire.
Tomasz moves in, but is instructed not to go into the attic where Magda's mother resides. She's dying and Magda cares for her like the devoted daughter she is. Rather predictably, Tomasz and Madga become romantically involved, but Tomasz's suspicions about Magda's mother increase, especially as he encounters a strange bat-like creature in the bathroom.
Amulet doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel and becomes increasingly predictable as it goes on. It's not hard to guess what's going on here, but as a decent slow-burn horror, Amulet still works relatively well. There is a slow buildup of dread as Garai's film progresses and the director handles it with confidence.
Secareanu is great as Tomasz, building a believable, human portrait of a man haunted by his past. His chemistry with Juri has an innocent, almost pure quality to it. Imelda Staunton is particularly memorable as Claire, the nun who immediately has everyone's alarm bells ringing.
Yet, Amulet lacks intimacy. It's almost impossible not to compare it with 2019's Relic, another emotional horror film directed by Natalie Erika James. Both Amulet and Relic explore our own anxieties about growing old, our bodies and minds decaying, but Relic managed to infuse its narrative and visuals with meaning and emphasis, but Amulet is often a little too straight up about its metaphors.
Amulet unfolds in two different timelines, Tomasz's past and present. As we learn more about his past and the things that haunt him, it makes us question who we root for. And then, just before the final showdown, Amulet completely changes and becomes almost a feminist fairytale. Here, men are punished for their transgressions and women revel in their small victories. Mind you, Amulet contains short scenes that can prove triggering to some viewers.
It may not be perfect and it includes some questionable narrative choices, but Amulet is still directed wonderfully by Garai. The visuals are lush and the effects are impressive. Led by a fascinating performance from Secareanu, Amulet is interesting, but never terrifying. It's a fine debut feature and we should look forward to whatever Garai does next.
Amulet is in UK cinemas January 28.