An unnerving family dynamic is at play in Joe Marcantonio’s Kindred, a psychological thriller musing on motherhood and madness. Young Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance) is only tensely welcomed by her boyfriend Ben’s (Edward Holcroft) established, but insular small family unit, with Ben’s mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw) wordlessly clutching to whatever domain she still holds over her adult son. Hovering about is Ben’s step-brother Thomas (Jack Lowden), always cooking and maintaining a strict schedule. Margaret’s home is a stately manor of faded affluence and the beginning signs of major disrepair, much too much house for so little life. Instead of company, it’s filled with expectations.
At first Charlotte seems more at ease than Ben; but while tragically without family, Charlotte is freer to experience the world. Conflict immediately strikes when Ben hesitantly announces their plans to move to Australia, leaving Margaret immediately flummoxed and shunning Charlotte from discussions. As the matriarch attempts to regain control, Ben dies in an accident that unsheathes the two women’s resentments. But in an attempt at supposed resolution, Margaret takes in the newly pregnant Charlotte – but is this well-intended, or does Margaret have eyes on her unborn grandchild?
Kindred leaves most of the unspoken tensions to inference, perhaps much like Charlotte would experience and internally navigate them. Margaret’s clipped expression is laden with microaggressions towards class and race, though she seldom overtly expresses herself. Kindred becomes both frustrating in its avoidance of acknowledging its sociopolitical context and unsettling in its imagery – Charlotte becomes frustrated by her white doctor’s unwillingness to accept her concerns, is later seen confined to a dingy ancient bed, and is haunted by visions of crows. Keeping both of its feet planted on the side of suggestion versus explicitness doesn’t always serve the film’s themes, and even obscures them. This casual unwillingness to say the thing that is on our minds makes for a much more bleak, dry rot of a horror experience, leaving its few surreal flashes to express something beyond the film’s stylistic and ideological claustrophobia. Somehow, the layers remain rich for unpacking, with the film’s implacable resolve to not hold our hands through its trauma almost demanding we engage with it.
The film’s quasi-Rosemary’s Baby vibes also projects where the story is headed long before we come to it, making what Charlotte endures all the more emotionally brutal. That air of predictability turns Kindred a bit lugubrious, even if it’s intentionally about Charlotte’s systematic unraveling. It’s all leading to a conclusion to make us examine the mothers we do and do not believe when it comes to their experiences, the motives behind what instills certain perceptions of feminine madness. Marcantonio seems at peace with the film’s blurred conclusion, but Kindred’s final notes are muddied in ways that demand reexamination of everything before it, refusing simplified answers.
Kindred’s strongest aspect is in the dueling performances of Lawrance and Shaw. As Charlotte, Lawrance is meticulously fractured once psychosis begins to take over. The film relies heavily on the believability of her performance, and Lawrance is a natural and compelling screen presence, selling the trickier final leap the character takes. As her relationship with Thomas complicates, so do the finer textures of Lawrance’s expressiveness. Opposite is the arctic cruelty of Shaw, wielded out with the might of some of her previous performances, but with an exciting edge of unpredictability. Together, they enrich Kindred’s more hesitant impulses into a film with upsetting capabilities.