LFF 2020 ‘Relic’ Review: It’s Rotten Getting Old

Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcotecome) to Kay’s mother’s house to investigate her recent disappearance. The house reveals a troubled mindset, with new locks and several disturbing notes. It becomes clear that she was afraid of something. The only thing more unsettling disappearance is her sudden return…

Relic is a horror film about pacing and mood. There’s a rhythm to the fright sequences and a disquieting atmosphere throughout. It keeps you guessing at what might be really happening to these characters as the menace remains very grounded, with just occasional hints of something otherworldly. It’s the textbook definition of creepy. You feel a sense of peril without being able to identify where the threat is actually coming from.

Most certainly it is a film about mental health issues and specifically dementia. The iconography is very familiar; mysterious bruises, confusion, mood swings, unexplained absences and of course fear. However, this is a horror film of mental health as told from the perspective of relatives and onlookers. It’s similar in this sense to The Visit (2016). This isn’t a film about how frightening it is to experience dementia or old age in general, it’s a film about how frightening it is to be related to someone experiencing dementia or old age and the chilling promise that this may one day be us. The grandmother’s humanity is not forgotten, but her perspective is somewhat missing.

There is of course validity to this approach and as someone with aging relatives, it’s a very relatable fear. But horror cinema has always been about finding manageable explorations of the things that frighten us the most. Most of us will have relatives and friends who experience mental health issues in their lifetime and the fear of how that will impact our lives and our relationships to those people. Ultimately a resolution is achieved that resembles The Babadook but more pessimistic. There’s certainly catharsis, but with a dark twist.


The horror also pertains to the strained relationship between three generations of mothers and daughters as time and age begins to weigh upon them. It’s about obligation and neglect. Kay is not comfortable in the position of daughter or mother. Emily Mortimer very ably articulates the emotional distance she has put between herself and the difficult people in her life. The fragility of her defences and depth of her hurt is very well expressed. More conventionally, though still capably, Robyn Nevin and Bella Heathcote portray the frightened and frightening older woman and the wilful but ultimately overwhelmed granddaughter respectively. As reluctant antagonist and compelling audience surrogate they are both very engaging. I just can’t help but wonder what a film would be like if they reversed those roles, with grandmother as surrogate and overwhelmed young people as reluctant antagonist.

Relic is an exceptionally well-made story about a family becoming undone by the cruelty of time and the threat of indifference. It may not be a daring new perspective on mental health but it’s a very interesting exploration of the dark fears that can haunt a family.

Four Stars

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