'Kindred': Film Review

Kindred Production Still - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of IFC Films

From left: Jack Lowden, Fiona Shaw and Tamara Lawrance in 'Kindred'

Maternity under lockdown.

Tamara Lawrance, Jack Lowden and Fiona Shaw star in this country house psychological thriller about an expectant mother convinced her deceased boyfriend's family have taken control of her life.

The vulnerability of a pregnant woman has long been fertile ground for horror, but more often than not the source of the malevolence is the unborn child inside. In first-time feature director Joe Marcantonio's smart and unsettling psychological thriller Kindred, fear lives in the mind of the mother-to-be, plagued with dark visions, grief and confusion. Or is she being relentlessly gaslit by her deceased boyfriend's family as they plot to claim her child as their own? The film adds powerful subtext of white entitlement and even slavery to that scenario by making the protagonist a lone Black woman manipulated by her shabby-genteel hosts.

Few will remember the 1998 howler Hush, a trashy slice of Southern camp dripping in molasses and hysteria that had Jessica Lange as an unhinged matriarch hell-bent on taking possession of daughter-in-law Gwyneth Paltrow's baby. The subtle tagline for that lurid potboiler: "When Jackson brought home his new bride, she was everything a mother would kill for." Nice.

Marcantonio and co-writer Jason McColgan are doing something much more subdued and ambiguous with a parallel scenario, which even at its most monstrous, never goes over the top. That actually makes it far more sinister.

There are hints of the supernatural in the constant appearance of crows, both in the waking hours and the disturbed dreams of Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance). The film's original title was Corvidae, referring to the passerine bird family that often figures in literature as dark omens of misfortune or death. That element contributes some disquieting occult notes but it's the grounding in claustrophobic chamber drama that makes Kindred so gripping.

Charlotte and her boyfriend Ben (Edward Holcroft) are planning to move to Australia for a fresh start, away from his overbearing, twice-widowed mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw), who lives in the family's crumbling Scottish manor with Thomas (Jack Lowden), her obsequiously devoted stepson from her second marriage. Margaret vehemently opposes the move, reminding Ben of his duty to a family he clearly wants to escape, and Charlotte's unexpected pregnancy does nothing to alter their immigration plans.

Early in the film, a horrific accident while Ben is on a veterinarian call at the stables where Charlotte works leaves her alone facing an uncertain future. The history of her mother, who suffered from perinatal psychosis, contributes to her doubts about having a child. But shock and her weakened condition put her at the mercy of the controlling Margaret and chilly family medic Dr. Richards (Anton Lesser).

Talented cinematographer Carlos Catalán from the outset establishes the estate where Charlotte will be confined for the duration of her pregnancy as a forbidding place, seeding dread with ominous overhead shots of the approach through dense forest accompanied by the tremulous strings of Natalie Holt and Jack Halama's score.

Production designer Derek Wallace provides captivity symbols — morbid taxidermy displays or a bird in an elaborate cage designed like a grand country house. The vast home itself has a museum-like stateliness, but there's also a suffocating air and a scent of decay in its peeling walls.

That evidence of financial difficulty has not made brittle Margaret any less commanding, nor has the permanent limp that forces her to walk with a cane, its cause revealed later in her backstory. While Shaw is careful not to turn Margaret into an ogre, this is definitely a dowager you don't want to mess with, as suggested by Ben's mix of deference and exasperation around her early on, and by Thomas' nervous eagerness to please.

Lawrance effectively conveys Charlotte's disorientation as she wakes after collapsing at the hospital and finds herself in a bedroom at the manor under constant supervision from Margaret and Thomas. Her attempts to leave are blocked "for the good of the baby" as they insist she's unwell. They steadily strip her of all decision-making power and inform her that the bank has foreclosed on the cottage where she lived with Ben, leaving her nowhere else to go.

The murky circumstances of that process, along with the delayed repair of her broken phone add to Charlotte's mounting panic, while her drowsiness feeds the suspicion that she's being drugged. Lawrance makes the insidious nature of her fear, frustration and solitude palpable, adding to the suspense as she studies her captors and weighs their continuing reassurances that her care is their only concern.

The sense of a woman whose freedoms have been usurped is genuinely alarming, injecting urgency into her attempts to escape. Catalán uses handheld cameras for those jittery scenes and anamorphic lenses inside the house, their understated fish-eye effect suggesting early on that this is an unhealthy environment. The race element is never discussed, but every interaction with Charlotte seems designed to remind her she's an outsider, even exploiting knowledge of her mother's medical history to undermine her independence.

Lowden, who also served as producer, pulls off a creepy balancing act between being a pawn doing Margaret's bidding and making his own moves by presenting himself to Charlotte as a friend, confidant and perhaps even a substitute romantic partner. "Just do as you're told," he tells her in a tone that aims to be soothing, like a parent trying to keep an unruly child out of trouble.

Shaw's Margaret maintains more of a distance, but her clipped responses to Charlotte's defiance reveal the ice in her veins. Her anger is all the more threatening for being mostly contained. As the camera slowly closes in on her during one riveting monologue, she reveals her own lack of maternal feeling when Ben was born and the late discovery of it only when he was bitten by the family dog as a child. Nature as a dangerous, unpredictable force is a minor theme that recurs throughout.

Marcantonio shows confidence and maturity in his choices. There are no cheap jump scares or shocks, just a queasy feeling that gets under the skin and remains there in a film notable for its sustained mood.

Skilled performances from the entire cast help, but no less crucial to the film's effectiveness is the visual command, the elegant yet somehow baleful compositions and the long takes that allow the psychological unease of the scenario to fester. The prickly score is another key part of the package, with sharp, counterintuitive use of a serene Bach cello suite in a moment of sudden peril. The chilling finale is a shocker, but it's the restraint that guides us there that makes Kindred an accomplished debut. 

Production company: Reiver Pictures
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Cast: Tamara Lawrance, Jack Lowden, Fiona Shaw, Edward Holcroft, Chloe Pirrie, Kiram Sonia Sawar, Michael Nardone, Anton Lesser
Director: Joe Marcantonio
Screenwriters: Joe Marcantonio, Jason McColgan
Producers: Dominic Norris, Jack Lowden
Executive producers: Norman Merry, Peter Hampden, Compton Ross, Gareth Wiley, Max Gunthardt, John Keville, Morgan Bushe
Director of photography: Carlos Catalán
Production designer: Derek Wallace
Costume designer: Natalie Humphries
Music: Natalie Holt, Jack Halama
Editor: Fiona Desouza
Casting: Alice Searby
101 minutes