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Amulet
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by Jay Seaver

"Looks the part but doesn't give the audience enough."
2 stars

It's always worth asking what particular thought is the one which drove the creation of a movie. Is it a metaphor, a twist on familiar tropes, a particular image, or scene, or potential performance? Or are people just making movies because it's their job and this keeps them employed? "Amulet" never fully seems to be that, but seldom offers much more than just people doing their jobs in capable but not exactly inspiring fashion.

It centers on Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), a veteran of a Central-European conflict currently living rough and doing day labor in England. An injury has him in hospital where he's visited by Sister Clare (Imelda Staunton). She introduces him to Magda (Carla Juri), a young woman living alone but for her sick mother and a bit overwhelmed caring for her. He needs a place to stay, she has an extra room and could use some help with the large and ramshackle old house, so it's a good match. Except, of course, that most people caring for an ailing parent don't have them locked in the attic.

There's some potentially interesting things to dig into here - Magda, as a dutiful daughter who is sacrificing any semblance of a life of her own to take up the burden of her mother's care; Tomaz, who is haunted by events during his service that have some parallels with his current situation - but writer/director Romola Garai often keeps the material that could resonate at arm's length. She's making a thriller and has no problem pointing out that something strange is going on, but by keeping things mysterious, she's often not giving the audience enough interesting nuggets to be drawn in and feel like there's something resonant just out of reach, rather than just details the audience is not being told. It feels like she's biding time and when it finally comes time to pull back the curtain, what's behind doesn't mean a whole lot. There are secrets and lies but they are arbitrary, not close enough to the situation Tomaz thinks he's in to make it clever.

It's striking to look at, although that imagery has some of the same issues as the script: There's ambition behind it and it pops out as mysterious and not-quite right, but it winds up more recognizable as scary than actually frightening. Garai and her team (notably cinematographer Laura Bellingham and editor Alastair Reid) spend a lot of time in the early going making a feature that feels like a short film, with shots held in ominous quiet for a moment two longer than they might be, sacrificing some sharpness and letting the color fade a bit to signal an oppressive atmosphere and a working-class simplicity that should help the audience get in their corner. The more overt material is well-executed too, with some quality grotesquerie and a trippy sequence or two.

The cast, at least, is doing good work. Alec Secareanu finds ways to make the broken, nervous Tomaz appealing and form a strong connection between how the man appears as both a young soldier and the veteran who has seen more. He doesn't have a lot of lines but manages to be just twitchy enough to make it work without screaming "acting!" Carla Juri is good as well, finding the right mix of guilt and resistance to keep her alone in this house. Imelda Satunton's Sister Claire is obviously there to be more than just get Tomaz into Magda's house, but doesn't insist on being more early on and clearly has fun when she gets the chance.

They're good enough and there's enough going on that I'm sure that this movie will click with some people, or the icky stuff will catch them just right. It didn't for me, and the determination to keep things mysterious had me bored enough that things getting weird toward the end wasn't enough to bet me back into it. There's enough pieces of a good movie here that "Amulet" is hard to actively dislike, but it would be a lot better if Garai didn't hold so much back for so long rather than just banking on how it looks like a smart horror movie.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33649&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/31/20 12:36:13
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USA
  24-Jul-2020 (R)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Romola Garai

Written by
  Romola Garai

Cast
  Carla Juri
  Alec Secareanu
  Imelda Staunton
  Anah Ruddin



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