2020 BFI London Film Festival Review: RELIC

4 out of 5 stars

On the surface, Natalie Erika James’ Relic is a horror film – and for all intents and purposes it is. But there’s much more to unpack in this richly layered piece of genre cinema. Horror films always work best when they’re using the genre as a way of telling a different story, where the subtext is even more important than the scares. In much the same way that Ari Aster’s Midsommar was a mediation on grief and an analysis of relationships, Relic is a film about three generations of a family coping with dementia. 

When Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing from her home, daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) begin to search for her. Worried because of Edna’s ever growing dementia, they become relieved when she finally reappears. However, the old family home begins to mirror the fears of deterioration and loss that the three women have. They must battle it in order to keep their family together. 

Relic is Natalie Erika James feature film debut, but this Australian film, (which she co-write with Christian White ) has thematic echoes of her 2017 short, Creswick. That film was a two-hander about a father and daughter, but this time James tackles the tale from an all female perspective. It’s a piece which is exceptionally well paced and gloriously acted by the three leads. Awards rarely go to ‘horror films’, but Relic has an outside shot at garnering some heat in the post-COVID-19 awards season. 

The horror elements on the surface of James’ film may appear to be fantastical, but those in search of a traditional haunted house movie will be sorely disappointed. Relic is about family, love and loss. It’s about acknowledging old age and everything that it brings.  By using three generations of the same family, James and White are able to show the journey that most of us will go through – youth, middle-age and ultimately our final years. Each of these three acts has their own positives and negatives, but we all know where we are ultimately going in the end.  

James is a director of serious skill and for this feature, she has brought along exceptional talent in front of, and behind the camera. Creswick cinematographer Charlie Sarrof captures some glorious visuals, while composer Brian Reitzell’s score helps the film seep into your being. 

Relic is a powerful piece of low key filmmaking, but while it might be small in scope, it’s huge in resonance. Director Natalie Erika James not only shows she’s a force to be reckoned within the horror genre, but that she can also tease-out expectational performances and deliver a film with a serious amount of emotional heft.