By Nadia Dalimonte
Fiona Shaw, Tamara Lawrance, and Jack Lowden in Kindred (2020)
Joe Marcantonio’s feature debut, Kindred, is a psychological gas-lighting thriller dipped in a moody atmosphere. Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, an ominous crow sits by the window of a grieving young woman and traces her descent into dizzying confusion. The story begins with Charlotte (Lawrance) and her boyfriend Ben (Edward Holcroft), who live together and are giddy with news. Upon a visit to Ben’s mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw), at the wealthy family’s manor, they brace themselves to tell her they’re moving to Australia. Margaret takes the news poorly…to say the least. What about his responsibilities? What about following in the footsteps of all the generations who have lived in the manor before him? The audacity that her son break tradition offends her deeply. Her guttural reaction originates an unspeakable wickedness that casts a cloud over the manor and all who step foot in it.
The film immediately lets on that all is not what it seems to be. An unsettling score accompanies the introduction to Margaret’s crumbling home, so grand and dilapidated that it challenges any visitor to feel truly welcome inside. But there is one other person who seems completely at home - Ben’s stepbrother Thomas (Jack Lowden), who follows Margaret around like a lost puppy and keeps his interactions with other characters as brief as possible. Charlotte has an inkling something is wrong, starting with the appearance of a crow that keeps meeting her glances out the window. After experiencing some nausea and dizziness for a few weeks, she checks in with a doctor who informs her she’s pregnant. The news is a complete shock, and she wants to know her options if she decides not to have the baby. Charlotte’s fear stems from a condition her mum had during and after pregnancy with her. Ben, on the other hand, is completely ecstatic and assures her she’s not her mum. The discourse surrounding Charlotte’s pregnancy is constant throughout the film, as it brings into question what exactly is causing her descent into dizzying confusion.
Charlotte’s early suspicions about Margaret and Thomas multiply after Ben suffers a tragic accident while looking after a horse. Upon hearing distressing news, she collapses and wakes up in the manor. She’s alone, in the middle of nowhere, with Ben’s controlling mother and stepbrother both determined to be her carers. Her personal belongings are conveniently brought over to the manor, where she’ll be resting until she feels better. But the film clearly gives off the false sense of illusion that she is in control. As the film progresses, she loses more and more agency. She becomes increasingly haunted by hallucinations, while Margaret and Thomas rip out every excuse in the book to prevent her from leaving the house. They have an answer for each and every one of Charlotte’s pleas to return home. The guise that she’s kept inside for her own good, and for the sake of her unborn child, begins to unravel.
There is something incredibly familiar about Kindred, in that it takes every twist and turn you expect from a story that hints and nudges from the very beginning. To make matters more clearly spelt out, the use of imagery is very on the nose. For nearly every moment of fright, an ominous bird arrives right on cue. But as derivative as the story can be, it’s a relief that intrigue emerges from the performances. Tamara Lawrance takes the audience on a distressing journey as her character becomes increasingly unkept, physically and emotionally. Charlotte feels stuck, and the more she reaches out to others, the more harshly she is disregarded. Lawrance is incredible at going way beyond the page and portraying Charlotte’s constantly shifting emotions on a deeply memorable and effective level. She carries the film on her shoulders.
Charlotte’s emotional turmoil is met with the quiet intentions and oddly airy demeanor of Thomas, played by Jack Lowden. His character initially pops in and out of scenes. When you think he’s gone, he’s looming in the background, and all that time spent sneaking a look at Charlotte materializes in the second half of the film. Lowden’s performance has a wonderful slow build, and while his character sometimes falls into the traps of a derivative screenplay, he maintains a strong sense of ambiguity from the start. There’s a compelling inquisitiveness about Lowden’s work that fits the story well. In addition to the increasingly claustrophobic presence of Thomas, Charlotte also has to deal with the matriarch of the family. Given the look of Fiona Shaw in promotional material, it’s a bit surprising to learn that she has less to do than Lowden does, but that doesn’t stop her from also leaping beyond the page to add more layers to her character. In the hands of an inferior actor, Margaret could have easily been unambiguous and exaggerated. She also could have been typically quiet and cloaked in nuance. But Shaw’s performance brings an outwardly hurt and easily provoked quality to a character whose domineering anger stems from a place of indifference. She acts very much on her impulses, and unpredictably erupts into fits of anger just as suddenly as a balloon bursts. Shaw has a shattering monologue in the second half of the film, in which she traces her journey of depression, regret, and utter desperation. It’s an astonishing piece of acting, so good you can’t help but smile out of giddiness because she's *that* good. Her monologue makes the remainder of the film all the more disturbing to watch.
While Kindred is heavy on the imagery and goes down the route of conveniently placed plot points, plenty of intrigue can be found in the cast. An especially phenomenal performance by Tamara Lawrance grounds the story with gripping truthfulness. As so much of the story rests on her journey, the film simply would not work without her.