AMULET movie poster | ©2020 Magnolia Pictures

AMULET movie poster | ©2020 Magnolia Pictures

Rating: R
Stars: Carla Juri, Alec Secareanu, Angeliki Papoulia, Imelda Staunton, Anah Ruddin
Writer: Romola Garai
Director: Romola Garai
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Release Date: July 24, 2020

AMULET is a stylish, satisfying writing/directing feature debut from Romola Garai. Garai, a topnotch English actress (THE HOUR, SUFFRAGETTE) who does not appear here, demonstrates that she can get fine work from performers, and that she knows how to create an atmosphere that glides from dreamlike to nightmarish.

We follow Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) in two timelines. In one, he is a young wartime guard at an Eastern European border crossing deep in the woods. Digging a hole, he finds what other characters refer to as an amulet; it looks more like a medieval ivory carving. In the other, it’s about a year later. Tomas is now a refugee in London, doing construction work and living in a homeless shelter.

When the shelter burns down, Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) proposes an arrangement that may suit Tomaz. Magda (Carla Juri), an immigrant herself who is more or less Tomaz’s age, and her dying mother living in a large house. Although the home is spacious, as Claire says with little exaggeration, it’s “falling down around their ears.” Tomaz will get free room and board in exchange for fixing the place up. Between the fact that Tomaz is already beset by heart-pounding nightmares, Magda’s reluctance to let Tomaz see her mother, and the weird tea in the kitchen, we can tell something strange is going on here.

Garai, cinematographer Laura Bellingham, and production designer Francesca Massariol create a rich look, with a few shots that could practically double as Renaissance paintings. There’s also a strong sense of dread and rot throughout. Composer Sarah Angliss uses off-kilter church bells to tease supernatural events to come, even when we’re watching something as mundane as traffic in a tunnel.

There is a lot of creative gore, plentiful body horror, and a fair amount of what could be termed real estate terror. AMULET posits some brand-new plumbing issues that will make most homeowners grateful they’ve only got leaky pipes.

Secareanu is versatile as the troubled Tomaz, and Juri is adroit at negotiating Magda’s complications; at one point, she fearlessly embodies the adage “dance like no one is watching.” Staunton is swell as Sister Claire, and Angeliki Papoulia is sympathetic as a war refugee.

The storytelling in AMULET is a bit splotchy. Some elements are explained so much that we get clarifying flashbacks (in case we forgot certain lines of dialogue). Other aspects that seem just as important get no clarification whatever, including exactly how the amulet plays into the proceedings. The plot points that don’t get exposition appear as significant as the ones that do. This winds up somewhat blunting the impact of Garai’s fable, but it’s still pleasingly spooky and looks great.

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