Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

dir Natalie Erika James
scr Natalie Erika James, Christian White
prd Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker
with Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Jeremy Stanford, Chris Bunton, Christina O'Neill, Catherine Glavicic, Steve Rodgers, John Browning, Robin Northover, Laura Sutton, Zoe Amanda Wilson
release US 3.Jul.20,
Aus 10.Jul.20, UK 30.Oct.20
20/Australia 1h29

mortimer heathcote nevin
london film fest

Is it streaming?

heathcote and mortimer
Overloading the creepy atmosphere from the start, filmmaker Natalie Erika James unnerves the audience with the usual cinematic freakery. Although the film's murky imagery and achingly slow pace may challenge some viewers, it immediately becomes clear that there's something more profound going on here, as decay in the family house has a bigger metaphorical meaning. This may be somewhat obvious, but it plays out with a beautiful darkness.
In Melbourne, Kay (Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Heathcote) are worried about Grandma Edna (Nevin). So they pay her a visit in the countryside, finding that the enormous house is a mess and Grandma is missing. But something odd is going on within the house's walls, and then Edna reappears as if nothing happened. Clearly her mind is beginning to slip, so Kay and Sam decide to stick around to keep an eye on her. Over the following days, they're increasingly unnerved by Edna's unpredictable behaviour, which has already alienated the neighbours (Stanford and Bunton).
An arthouse spin on the haunted house movie, the imagery and sounds aren't particularly original, but they're skilfully rendered and assembled in a way that will unsettle patient viewers. Much more inventive is the way the story's deeper meaning emerges through the nastiness, giving one of our worst internal fears a haunting, tactile quality. Many of the yucky cutaways and nighttime frights feel rather random, but other elements are scary simply because they're so strikingly moving.

Both mother-daughter relationships are vividly textured, close but not easy. At the centre, Mortimer has the most complex role, delicately revealing intense emotions. It's a low-key performance packed with powerful resonance as Kay worries about both her mother and daughter. The superb Nevin has the more colourful role as the imperious Edna, offering flickers of feisty energy in between her disconcerting blank moments. And Heathcote has some strong scenes of her own as Sam copes with her own crazy nightmare.

The layered drama is more engaging than the gnawing horror, finding a stream of knowing observations as these women circle around each other. When Kay says Edna needs to be in care, Sam misses the irony when she replies, "Your mum changes your nappies and then you change hers." So there's plenty to think about even if the film stubbornly refuses to generate any kind of momentum. It's a gorgeously crafted movie, with some nerve-jangling jolts, although turning on a light would have helped.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 6.Oct.20 lff

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