Romola Garai’s directorial debut aims to mix body horror and feminist storytelling but instead feels like a short film stretched to feature length.
Released in 1977, David Cronenberg’s Rabid tells the story of a woman named Rose (Marilyn Chambers) who, after getting in a motorcycle accident, gets heavy plastic surgery to remedy her injuries. With the procedure also comes an insatiable thirst for blood—and what may be male anatomy. Her appearance is, by the culture’s acceptance of the word, feminine. It’s when her behavior becomes more aggressive—and therefore more traditionally masculine—that society punishes this disparity. It has body horror and gore, but what makes it stick out to this day is its look at the differences between sex and gender.
Needless to say, Rabid was quite radical for its time. It still is. It’s just one of the reasons that, 43 years later, Romola Garai’s Amulet sounds like it should work. For one, it has some similar themes, approaching them from a different perspective. Here’s a film that explores the spectrum between masculinity and femininity from the outside, all wrapped up in genre lore. It’s its own idea that fits into a larger canon of movies like Rabid, going for a much quieter, Kafkaesque approach. So why doesn’t it work? There are several reasons, and they’re all the more frustrating given how shallow they show Garai’s directorial debut to be.
Amulet follows Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), a homeless veteran and refugee in London. One day, a woman named Magda (Carla Juri) invites him to stay with her and her ailing mother, a nun by the name of Claire (Imelda Staunton). It’s a fixer-upper—stains on the walls, shells embedded in the ceiling, no electricity due to Claire’s previous self-harm incidents—but hey, it’s something. Then Tomaz begins falling for Magda. Maybe something nefarious is drawing him in. Maybe he’s going insane. Maybe, given how stretched out this thing is, it doesn’t really matter.
Yes, the main issue here is that while Amulet has potential on the page, it’s a half-hour story stretched out to 100 minutes. It takes about 45 minutes for any of these themes to coalesce, and it takes another 30 for things to kick into gear. At first it seems like the film fails because of how cloying it is on a technical level. And that is a large part of it: Laura Bellingham’s cinematography and Garai’s coverage are too flat to convey a sufficient sense of space. Worse is the soundscape, which grinds strings and choir vocals into the viewer’s ears to the point of self-parody. It’s too abrasive to affect and too sanded down to engage.
But what embodies these issues even more are the characters themselves, whom Garai’s script defines without any pathos. At times it feels as if Amulet wants to treat its trio like archetypes. That would be fine, but the pacing thins this out to the point where they’re simply dull. Furthermore, if the movie does see its characters as archetypes, not all of their respective traits feel specific to the themes they represent. Is Tomaz’s background as a veteran meant to embody his masculinity? If so, that’s more haphazard and circumstantial than anything else, making his loss of identity into a non-conflict.
[W]hile Amulet has potential on the page, it’s a half-hour story stretched out to 100 minutes.
Other shadings of the script point to a larger context. There’s Claire’s background as a nun; there’s Magda’s role as a caretaker. Alas, these two also fall victim to the dog-slow first half as well as the lack of interaction between characters. Tomaz nor Magda have much of any growth beyond what the script ultimately assigns to them, rendering them as narrative pawns with only the most tenuous link between them. If anything, it’s Tomaz’s status at a refugee that adds the most to his character, but the movie appears surprisingly uninterested in its larger implications.
It’s only in its third act that Amulet reveals a semblance of ambition, be it cinematically or thematically. Up until then, it holds its cards so close to the vest that it may as well not been hiding anything at all. But hey, perhaps those involved can make something better in the future. After all, there’s clearly a hook. Feminist horror, masculine anxiety, and genre staples are all here. The ideas must have been intriguing on paper. It’s just a shame there’s no clear voice to guide them far on screen.
Amulet lands on VOD this Friday, July 24.