Romola Garai is best known for her work in front of the camera in everything from period (Vanity Fair, Angel, BBC’s Emma) to contemporary (I Capture the Castle, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights) dramas but for years, the actress has also been toiling away as a writer. At first, the stories were largely dramatic and very much in line with the film’s she had appeared in over the years but more recently, with the push of women into the horror genre, Garai felt empowered to write something more true to her tastes and her love for horror. The resulting film, Garai’s feature film debut, is Amulet.
Alec Secareanu (God’s Own Country) stars as Tomaz, a former soldier living on the streets of London, doing odd-jobs for cash. It’s a sad existence that gets worse for Tomaz when the place he’s squatting in catches fire but with the help of a nun who comes to his rescue, the great Imelda Staunton, Tomaz soon finds himself at the home of Magda (Carla Juri), a young woman tasked with looking after her very ill mother. The deal is simple: Tomaz is to help Magda around the dilapidated house and in return, he gets food and board.
At first, neither Tomaz nor Magda seem happy with the arrangement but slowly, the two start to form a bond. At first, it feels like two lonely souls who have been dealt difficult hands in life are finally finding some solace in each other but the more we learn about each of them, the clearer it becomes that neither is being completely truthful.
Garai’s script is wonderfully constructed, delivering information in controlled batches which allow her to build mystery and tension around Tomaz and his past. At first, one can’t help but feel bad for the man who seems to have suffered so much and escaped war in hopes of a better life only to find himself on the streets but as Amulet progresses, and particularly once he arrives at Magda’s home, it’s clear that he’s not entirely innocent.
Interestingly, since Amulet is very distinctly, and effectively, a movie that turns the concept of “male saviour rescuing the maiden in distress” on its ear, the movie focuses almost exclusively on Tomaz’s journey. In gorgeously captured flashbacks of Tomaz’s time guarding a remote border in a lush forest, we see the terror and depravity of his past, and while we come to terms with the fact that we’ve been sympathetic with a monster, Garai coily places all of the film’s power in the hands of Magda, the apparent victim. Amulet’s final act is a victorious, completely unexpected turn, that feels completely out of left field until one considers the subtlety and stealth of the script.
The monster-in-the-attic and supernatural aspects of Amulet don’t fully work but these are such small parts of the film that they’re easily overshadowed by the movie’s successes: the cinematography from Laura Bellingham which effectively captures the lusciousness of the forest, the coldness of London and the oppression of Magda’s home, Sarah Angliss’ stunning score, the performances from Secareanu, Juri and Staunton, and the film’s script which is hugely successful.
Garai’s talents as a writer and director are clearly on display with Amulet which premiered to well deserved acclaim earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Here is hoping that the film’s success means we’ll see more of Garai’s work behind the camera.