⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
Starring: Tamara Lawrance, Fiona Shaw, Jack Lowden, Edward Holcroft
Writers: Joe Marcantonio, Jason McColgan
Director: Joe Marcantonio
In Theaters and Streaming
A snappy British thriller that lives in the same twisted neighborhood as Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Kindred neither shies away from the social issues that drive its plot — nor forgets for one instant to keep the creepy chills coming with exhausting fervor.
When we meet young Charlotte and Ben (Tamara Lawrance and Edward Holcroft), the handsome, obviously madly-in-love couple are on their way to visit the sprawling, if crumbling, country estate of Ben’s mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw). Ben is white, Charlotte is black, and, yes, it is worth noting that this is almost exactly the same set-up Peele constructed for Get Out.
Unlike the disturbingly friendly parents of the former film, however, Ben’s mom is decidedly frosty and domineering — and Ben’s stepbrother Thomas (Jack Lowden), while friendly enough, seems weirdly detached from reality. What’s worse, the pair have come to tell Mother they are moving to Australia. She takes the news as badly as you’d expect — and doubly so when the couple inform her they are also expecting a baby. A series of awful events leads to Charlotte becoming a virtual prisoner in Margaret’s manse, where all involved await the birth of her baby with varying displays of growing anticipation and mounting horror.
The trouble with reviewing a film like Kindred is that the reader must take a lot of what the critic has to say on faith: Too much plot description will inevitably ruin the surprises first-time director/cowriter Joe Marcantonio has in store. Indeed, for my money the official description of the story gives away entirely too much detail, so I won’t even go that far here.
Kindred’s performances, however, are too splendid to ignore. The cast is composed almost entirely of acclaimed British stage actors — not always a good thing, as stage and screen acting are virtually separate arts. In this case, director Marcantonio masterfully ushers them between the subtleties of movie acting and the histrionics of stagecraft, putting both skill sets to effective use. As Charlotte, Lawrance artfully evokes the growing dread of a woman who must overcome loss and confusion to assert herself against a dementedly imperious host. Lowden’s Thomas is a clearly damaged soul, cowed by his mother and attracted to Charlotte’s obvious intelligence and humanity.
The film’s towering performance, though, comes from Shaw, one of Britain’s most beloved actors, known to most filmgoers as Harry Potter’s fussy Aunt Petunia but also fondly remembered as the doctor who rescued Daniel Day-Lewis from his crippled prison in My Left Foot. Marcantonio knows he’s got a good thing in Shaw, and he gives her enough screen time to breathe life into Margaret — most notably in one extraordinary scene, a single-shot masterpiece, in which the woman relates her long-ago transition from a distant, disinterested mother into an obsessively attentive one. Shaw’s monologue, a breathless example of the actor’s art, hauntingly embodies a woman teetering on the precipice between the maternal and the monstrous.
Kindred is rich in such moments; interludes that not only give the audience a moment to catch its breath but also endow the characters, even the perceived villains, with uncommon humanity. For one extended scene, Marcantonio has Charlotte and Thomas sit down at a piano together to engage in a four-handed rendition of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune.” The film could have survived without the passage, but it adds layers of nuance to the pair’s complicated (to say the least) relationship and has, on its own merits, a distinct visual and aural beauty.
The lush look of Kindred provides a fitting canvas for the film’s shadowy narrative. Cinematographer Carlos Catalán uses the visual language of supernatural cinema to evoke the very real horrors of an anguished mind, and Margaret’s classic scary old house — a once-grand estate now creaking with peeling paint and dusty paintings — is as much an emotional prison as a physical one.
But like Jordan Peele in Get Out, Marcantonio has more than the fictional traumas of his characters in mind. Although Charlotte’s race is never mentioned, she is quite emphatically the only character in the film of African descent. At every turn, she is marginalized and controlled by others. Even her beloved Ben sees nothing wrong with having been informed of Charlotte’s pregnancy by his mother, who’s gotten the word through back channels from Charlotte’s doctor — played to truly disturbing effect Anton Lesser (Wolf Hall) as a bow-tied cross between Dr. Spock and Dr. Jekyll.
Is Charlotte the victim of racism? Sexism? Or is she truly in need of the kind of paternalistic dominance being heaped on her by everyone in her orbit? Like all good filmmakers, Marcantonio leaves the conclusions up to us. It’s his job to present us with the clues, which he does with admirable style and intelligence.
Featured image: Fiona Shaw, Tamara Lawrance and Jack Lowden in Kindred (Courtesy of IFC Midnight)