Out of all the films I’ve seen this year so far, Kindred has surprised me the most. It has some of the most assured direction I’ve witnessed this year, made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s the feature debut of its co-writer/director, Joe Marcantonio. Kindred is a horror film not primed to scare you but to instill unease and dread as it considers the grooves of vulnerability and loss. It’s well-paced and methodical without being overly slick; it doesn’t skimp on chilly undercurrents that give the story heft. (The score by Jack Halama and Natalie Holt, with its creeping strings, puts you immediately on edge.) The script never condescends to the audience, preferring to let us live in the realm of suggestion rather than ham-fistedly spelling out its thematic turns.
But Kindred has haunted me in the weeks since I’ve first seen it for what it suggests just under the surface about Blackness, maternal life, and inheritance. These themes resonate through the story of Charlotte Wild (Tamara Lawrence), a young and tenacious Black woman whose life curdles when her caring, handsome boyfriend, Ben (Edward Holcroft), dies brutally just after she’s found out she’s reluctantly pregnant. His controlling mother, Margaret (a pitch-perfect Fiona Shaw), slowly takes control of Charlotte’s life under the guise of care. First, the cottage she shared with Ben is sold out from under her, leaving Charlotte to live with Margaret and her oddly dedicated stepson, Thomas (Jack Lowden), in their grand yet worn familial estate. Ben and Charlotte were planning to move to Australia, partially to get out from under the shadow of his mother. But in a cruel streak of irony, he’s buried on the very land he was trying to escape — where Charlotte is now claustrophobically trapped as well. There’s a sense that Margaret only cares about Charlotte because of the child she’s carrying, a living link to Margaret’s son. As Charlotte’s pregnancy grows, her autonomy lessens in kind, until she’s locked in a single room with nothing but her own ingenuity. She’s an isolated woman, all the more heartbreaking given her lack of friends and connections to the world, limiting the ways she can escape emotionally, let alone physically. At times, Charlotte’s mother — who was beset by mental health issues after her own pregnancy — is used as a cudgel to suggest Charlotte’s sanity is on flimsy ground. The film could have played with this dynamic more but chooses instead to have Charlotte — and the audience by extension — hold onto the belief that she is sane. As her life narrows in scope it becomes increasingly clear that Charlotte isn’t losing her mind, but she’s being gaslit into thinking so. She knows she’s being drugged. How else to explain her strange symptoms, the blackouts and all-consuming dreams? What thrums beneath the surface of this story is something black women have come to know well: the disregarding of our own humanity by various systems, including the medical field.
This isn’t a heavy-handed exploration but rather a suggestion, one that buzzes just beneath the surface of the action as Charlotte finds herself continuously hemmed in by Dr. Richards (Anton Lesser), a family friend of Margaret’s, a fact Charlotte learns too late. Charlotte initially goes to Dr. Richards after feeling sick at work and learns she’s pregnant — news she responds to with both shock and a curiosity about her options. The word “abortion” isn’t used but that’s clearly what she’s angling toward. Dr. Richards chastises her, instructing her to go home to Ben before making any rash decisions. Off screen, he tells Margaret about the pregnancy, who passes the news to Ben before Charlotte can break it to him herself.
In their respective 2018 Vogue cover stories, Beyoncé and Serena Williams spoke about the complications of their pregnancies, adding to an ongoing dialogue about Black maternal survival rates in this country and the mistreatment of Black women by the medical field. Both were a stark reminder that you can’t class your way out of Blackness. Williams’s account of her own blood clots and the ways in which doctors initially ignored her pleas for treatment was especially harrowing, putting into harsh relief that Black women in the United States are three to four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women. Kindred is of course a British film, but it is hard, watching it in America, to divorce this history from Charlotte’s. It’s what the film puts forward — about maternal management and female madness — that gives the script so much of its power.
But the reason it all works so effectively is that Marcantonio trusts his audience. His direction is perhaps the film’s greatest strength, demonstrating a striking sense of tone and mood amounting to a destabilizing effect. His images, crafted with cinematographer Carlos Catalán, inject unease — a fly delicately dancing along the edge of a spider’s web, a dead butterfly on the windowsill, the constant appearance of crows. Charlotte is often shown in long shots that render her small and boxed in within the home, until her being trapped becomes literal.
The best scenes of the movie occur when Marcantonio’s confident eye expertly frames the precise performances. Throughout the film, Fiona Shaw carries herself with a sense of prim severity, but for a moment midway through the film — before the horrors of Charlotte’s situation become untenable — Margaret reveals to Charlotte the vulnerabilities wrestling beneath the surface of her character. In a meaty monologue, Margaret admits that when she first gave birth to Ben, she didn’t love him. If anything, she felt numb. It was only when he was brutally bit by the family dog, his life’s preciousness flashing before her eyes, that Margaret came to realize she did indeed love Ben, full-bodied and myopically. What I love about this scene is that Marcantonio never cuts away from Shaw. Instead, he ratchets up the tension by never looking away, careening the camera closer to her face as she reveals the character’s complexity. Shaw has proven time and time again to be one of the most exciting actors working. In Kindred, you can see why. She handles with care the knotted undercurrents of her character.
When Charlotte finds herself locked in the house, Margaret says matter-of-factly, “You’re not well. You can’t even realize that. It’s terribly sad.” Shaw fixes a chilling smile on her face that perfectly mirrors the torture she’s inflicting. But Shaw isn’t the only actor bringing weight to her role. Jack Lowden is effectively creepy, as his character tries to paint himself as a savior for Charlotte. Tamara Lawrence, an actor I was introduced to in this film, creates an intricate interior life for her character. It’s a carefully modulated performance, from the pitch of her screams when she realizes how trapped she is to the sense of self her physicality communicates. With crystalline sincerity, she outwardly communicates the complications of grief. One of the most fascinating aspects of her character is her stunning streak of independence, resourcefulness, and ingenuity that she never lets go of until the final moments of the film, when the depth of what she’s lost comes into focus.
It’s in the chilling final image that the full gravity of Charlotte’s situation is deeply felt. In doing so, its co-writer/director has pulled off a rare feat: He’s created a work that interrogates grief with a sociopolitical undercurrent without losing sight of the fact that this is a horror film in the first place.
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