Generational Terror

Relic

by Hope Madden

Many a film has used a building—a haunted house, for instance—to represent the mental state of a character. From Shirley Jackson to Stephen King to Daniel Kehlmann, writers have lured us into perfectly lovely structures only to hold us inside, our ugly thoughts manifesting as danger, our madness creating a labyrinthine, Escher-esque trap.

Such is the case for Relic, a compassionate but clear-eyed look at a different type of hereditary horror.

Edna (Robyn Nevin) has been missing for at least three days. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) move into Edna’s place to keep an eye out for her while local police investigate.

And then, there she is, and it’s entirely likely she never even left the house.

Well, that can’t be—unless there’s something seriously weird about this house.

Co-writer/director Natalie Erika James keeps her metaphor right at the surface of the film. That keeps Relic from ever truly terrifying, honestly. There’s no simultaneous pull that something supernatural is afoot. But the sense of dread takes on a whole new tenor, and the film’s horror is honest as it hits on an emotional level.

Nevin does an admirable job with Edna, creating a fully dimensional character, one who’s tough enough that when she becomes vulnerable, it comes as a jolt.

Mortimer and Heathcote strike a believable love/disappointment/blame balance and the emotional tug of war among the three women rings sadly true.

There’s not a lot of depth to this story. Relic isn’t hiding its themes—there are no subplots or red herrings, and the a-ha moments that allow Sam and Kay to piece together the mystery of Gram’s troubles feel almost perfunctory.

But James doesn’t shy away from the ugliness, guilt, anger or grief that fuel relationships tied up in this particularly painful genealogical horror. With its evocative analogy, Relic shows us what we are really afraid of, and it isn’t ghosts.

Don’t Judge It By the Cover

The Bookshop

by Rachel Willis

The Bookshop is not what you might imagine. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald, one might expect a sentimental, feel-good film about the power of books to open up closed minds. That’s not what we get in writer/director Isabel Coixet’s latest film.

At the heart of the story is Florence Green (Emily Mortimer). Having recently purchased a building known colloquially as “the Old House”, she decides to open a bookshop in the space. It’s a way for her to find a level of independence, as well as rekindle a connection with her late, much beloved, husband. However, she is unprepared for the level of opposition she faces in the small seaside town of Hardborough.

The opposition is spearheaded by Mrs. Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), a woman who is used to getting what she wants, and what she wants is to turn the Old House into an arts center. On her side are several Hardborough residents who seem to oppose the bookshop only because she does.

The film starts strong. We watch as Florence overcomes the stall tactics of her solicitor, squashes rumors that she plans to buy another property for her bookshop, and successfully launches the shop of her dreams. However, before the first act concludes, the film begins to meander.

As Florence contends with obstacles she didn’t foresee, she becomes friendly with her first customer, the local eccentric, Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), and their relationship blossoms with an exchange of letters. In a scene reminiscent of The Age of Innocence, Brundish reads his first letter into the camera. It’s an unusual technique, but it helps to humanize the reclusive man. Unfortunately, not enough time or importance is given to this correspondence.

Florence’s only other ally in this world is her young assistant, Christine (Honor Kneafsey). It’s touching to watch Florence try to instill a love of books into Christine, but the connection between the two is never earned. There is little chemistry between the actors; their interactions are awkward when they should be affectionate.

For a movie with only a few characters, it still ends up feeling like too many. Minor characters are given more importance than they deserve. Major characters aren’t given time to develop meaningful relationships. Most of the characters are one-dimensional.

The lovely cinematography captures the theme of the film better than any other aspect. Hardborough appears both enchanting and foreboding. If this had been better explored through character dynamics, The Bookshop may have made a lasting impression. As it is, it’s a beautiful, but empty film.





Get the Guests

The Party

by Matt Weiner

Sally Potter’s jet-black comedy The Party mostly succeeds as social satire examining the savagery churning just below the surface of the polite and prosperous. Where it definitely succeeds, in ways that must seem truly unfair to every single other actor alive today, is crowning Patricia Clarkson as a national treasure.

Not that the rest of the tight ensemble is full of slouches. Clarkson plays April, one of five guests attending a party for Janet (the almost equally superb Kristin Scott Thomas), who is celebrating a political promotion.

Janet’s guests fall into broadly recognizable personalities who are practically begging to have their worlds turned inside out: from the New Age life coach Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) to the supercilious professor Martha (Cherry Jones, also—and you might be sensing a theme here—outstanding).

Timothy Spall plays Bill, Janet’s husband and a literal odd man out: he is nearly catatonic when the guests arrive. When he finally reveals why, it sets off a series of violent delights, both verbal and physical.

The cast might actually be too good for the material (written by Potter). That’s an envious problem for a movie to have, but it’s still a real one. The repartee is shocking and funny in turn. Just about every single line delivery from Clarkson, Scott Thomas and Spall is perfectly measured—so much so that the barbs feel like they’re cutting a lot deeper than they really are.

And Emily Mortimer provides a welcome degree of grounding as Jinny, Martha’s partner and the only party guest who seems recognizably human rather than an outsized target ripe for mockery.

But for all the wicked pleasures to be had from watching this masterclass in verbal sparring, there’s a nagging superficiality to it all. The rapid-fire pace distracts from the reality that nobody besides maybe Jinny ends up discovering some deeper personal meaning about themselves other than rank hypocrisy. And a gimmicky twist at the end doesn’t help.

And yet. It’s easy to forgive The Party’s shortcomings after you’ve heard Clarkson tell someone “You are surpassing yourself” or “You could consider murder” in tones so deadpan that we really ought to invent a new adjective.

It’s a strange, perfectly flawed bunch Potter has thrown together. And I could have stayed with them for hours more.