Regarding “Amulet,” the words of Abraham Lincoln, the First Movie Critic, come to mind.
“Those who like this sort of thing might find it the sort of thing they like.”
I see this horror tale from actress (“Suffragette” and TV’s “The Hour”) turned writer-director Romola Garai as a triumph of tone over terror, of chilly mood over any sense of malice it’s meant to generate.
Thoughtful, with the trappings of literature, philosophy, refugee politics and a moral person’s obligations and guilt in a time of civil war, Garai wrestles a lot into her story of demons and nuns and plumbing.
What she doesn’t do is give all this a proper shape or particularly arresting narrative. What she never does is frighten us by why we see or expect to see.
Alec Secareanu (of “God’s Own Country”) is Tomaz, a refugee scraping out a living in day work construction in xenophobic Britain. Each night, he squats with other outsiders in a flop, taking care to bind his wrists with electrical tape.
In his dreams, he is clean-shaven and in combat fatigues in the forests of his war-torn homeland, reading Hannah Arendt books as he works as a solitary border guard. Those dreams turn nightmarish when a woman (Angelika Papoulia) flees into his line-of-fire, or when he digs up a carved-bone relic of mysterious origin — an amulet.
The present day can be just as forbidding. He was a Ph.D. candidate back home. A fire in the flophouse makes him homeless and gets him robbed. A kindly nun (Imelda Staunton) is his salvation.
“What we want is not always what we need,” she counsels. “Forward is not the only way.”
She places him in a remote, tumbledown house, where Magda (Carla Jurí) is caring for a dying mother. Tomaz can “help” them. He can fix up the house, remedy the black bile pouring out of the plumbing, cope with the mold and skittering rats. Well, that’s the pitch, anyway.
But the unseen (at first) mother screams in the night, bites Magda in her rages. And the plumbing is beyond anything Drano can cope with.
Tomaz makes a go of it. Dour Magda brightens in his presence, and he gorges on her cooking. It’ll all come to tears, we just know it.
The first two acts — mysterious, cryptically connecting the hero’s past to his present predicament — are far more interesting than the “Oh, let’s explain everything, shall we?” finale.
Merely casting Staunton (Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies, QEII in TV’s “The Crown”) isn’t the give-away it might be, as she can play saintly or sinister with equal skill. But one does start out with the hunch that the villains on her resume called out to Garai.
The literary touches — Magda quoting St. Hildegard of Bingen — are more of a give-away.
“It is not far from the shores of silence to the boundaries of speech. The path is not long, but the way is deep. You must not only walk there, you must be prepared to leap.”
Magda leaves out the begining of that quotation — “Dare to declare who you are.”
The resolutions to the mystery, the depictions of what we’ve only suspected, are gruesome, conventional and dull and generic.
And that amulet? It’s an afterthought.
MPAA Rating: R for some strong violence, bloody images, a sexual assault, and brief language and nudity
Cast: Alec Secareanu, Carla Juri, Angelika Papoulia and Imelda Staunton
Credits: Written and directed by Romala Garai. A Magnet/Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:38