Romola Garai (“Atonement”), poised for greatness, goes behind the camera to make persuasive debut as filmmaker with “Amulet” | REVIEW

The definition of amulet is “a charm (such as an ornament) often inscribed with a magic incantation or symbol to aid the wearer or protect against evil such as disease or witchcraft.”

But there is a new definition. “Amulet,” a 2020 film directed by Romola Garai that is subtly eerie and one of the most effectively-directed films of 2020.

Romanian actor Alec Secareanu (“God’s own country”) stars as Tomaz, an emotionally-scarred and homeless refugee soldier who meets a kind nun, Sister Claire (the wonderful Imelda Staunton) who gives him food and shelter in turn for his work as a handyman for a decaying house. Carla Juri is the somewhat mysterious Magda, a woman living upstairs while caring for her invalid mother (Ana Ruddin).

Foul things are afoot and there is an immediate sense of something darker.

Garai opens her film by setting a muted tone that lulls the viewer into an uneasy calm. But it won’t last.

Cinematographer Laura Bellingham’s camera uses slow pans and patient framing to unobtrusively construct a sense of unease for the audience. As with any proper horror film, atmosphere is the key, and from the very first shots of the film Garai and Bellingham expertly solidify their world of dread. Their work is complemented by the extremely creepy score.

Alec Secareanu in a still from “Amulet”

Tomaz and Magda have a somewhat antagonistic relationship at first, as she does not want (nor does she need) a stranger coming into her understandably private life. After a while, the two form an uneasy bond. It cannot be called a natural friendship but, perhaps, two souls coming to a peace born of mutual pity, need, and despair.

After the film settles into its first half and we have gotten to know who these characters are and why they act the way they do, we are guided deeper into its horrors.

Absolutely nothing (and no one) is as it seems and once destiny is brought into it, Tomaz learns of his darker purpose in his already blackened world.

There is an evil essence snaking through the film. This is an evil that has colored Tomaz’s past, and that will now dictate the future. But the two are far from the same.

In flashbacks we see the terrors of Tomaz’s wartime past and the decisions he made during this time that force us to shift our allegiances and sympathies. Now carrying the weight of what happened in the forest checkpoint he solely guarded, Tomaz knows the dark and is now faced with an evil unlike any he has had to confront.

The film’s final act is something quite unexpected but Garai’s screenplay has prepared us for the horrifying revelations to come.

Actress Romola Garai’s debut feature as a writer/filmmaker is an assured film directed by a steady hand. Just when you think the film cannot sustain the believability of what is laid out in front of you, Garai’s direction makes it work. A goal that is achieved through precise and calculated filmmaking. With this first film, I am excited to see what she will create next. And while “Amulet” checks all the boxes of the horror genre Romola Garai nevertheless proves herself a capable purveyor of mood and character.

The spoiler code prevent me from diving too far into the film’s story, but those who see this film (especially fans of well-crafted and atmospheric horror) will be richly rewarded.

“Amulet” is the kind of genre film that speaks to the manifestation of evil and the grotesque consequences that wait for us in the darkness. David Cronenberg would be proud.

Garai on set with lead Alec Secareanu