64th BFI London Film Festival: ‘Relic’ Review

When Kay (Emily Mortimer), along with her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), visits her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin), a wave of bizarre incidents begins to occur. Upon arrival in Edna’s house, the woman is nowhere to be seen and she is reported as a missing person. Three days later, Edna comes home, dirty, disoriented, without shoes on, in a nightgown, and not able to remember where she was or what she did. Kay and Sam decide to move in to live with Edna and watch her closely in case she vanishes again. 

Kay and Sam very quickly realise that Edna suffers from dementia. While staying at her house, the place starts ‘coming to life’ with its odd noises and mould growing on the walls appearing out of nowhere. In addition, rooms are marked with sticky notes to remind Edna of ordinary and almost trivial tasks such as to ‘flush the toilet’. The woman’s dementia is quickly taking over her mind; she confuses names, she is puzzled about the time and day, and forgets that she gifted her granddaughter with a ring, which she later accuses her of stealing. Edna is slowly plunging into madness…

Photo © Relic 

The subject of dementia in Natalie Erika James’ Relic takes the form of a somatic spectrum; it is seen as a blight that grows rapidly while ‘destroying’ everything around it. While Kay and her daughter try to take care of Edna, the whole situation becomes mentally unbearable for both. Sam tries to help her grandmother by offering to live with her, while Kay believes that her mother should be placed in a care home. And the deeper they commit to looking after Edna, the more vivid and shocking the manifestation of dementia becomes. 

Photo © Relic 

One can look at the film in a literal or figurative way. Relic is James’ feature debut and, without a doubt, she drew on an incredible picture of what dementia looks like for those with the disease and those who care for the sick. It’s a family drama that turns into a slow-burning horror by methodically dosing tension through a stuffy atmosphere and dark, yet artistic, cinematography. Relic clearly accelerates only half an hour before the end, turning into a full-fledged thriller, and shows that acceptance of someone with a serious disease is the most human thing we can do. Apart from excellent cinematography by Charlie Sarroff, the biggest selling point of the film is not only its cogent narrative but the acting itself. While Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote are very convincing in their respectful roles, it is Robyn Nevin who carries the film throughout. She balances various emotions perfectly – madness, confusion, sadness, and anger come naturally for the actress. Watching Nevin ‘falling apart’ due to dementia makes one’s skin crawl.

Photo © Relic 

By dissecting the film from a metaphorical point of view, the audience gets a heart-rending story about how dementia destroys a human’s body and mind. It is also a story of accepting those affected by the disease and making sacrifices to look after them. The filmmaker does not give a definite answer to the questions of what the truth is when it comes to the disease, she allows the viewer to find their own interpretation. Relic is an artistic and ambitious production, however, it is not an easy watch. Nevertheless, the film will leave a trail in the audience’s minds with its superb storytelling and sublime acting.

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Written by Maggie Gogler 


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