Pregnancy and anxiety make up one of cinema’s most potent dramatic partnerships. Stories of women with child whose gestation doesn’t go as planned have given us many a harrowing screen experience, from Rosemary’s Baby to Children of Men to Inside. It’s easy to see why it works well: combine a compromised medical state, limited mobility, and dependence on others who may not have your best interests at heart, and you’ve got a recipe for instant terror.
These elements are used to powerful, frustrating effect in the new thriller Kindred, in which pregnant Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance) is faced with the sudden death of her boyfriend, Ben (Edward Holcroft), and is coerced into living with Ben’s overbearing family (Fiona Shaw, Jack Lowden) until she gives birth. Kindred is effectively moody and yell-inducing, but its cruelty takes it from a chilling-but-fun experience to a bitter and uncomfortable one.
From the first moments, director Joe Marcantonio (who co-wrote the script with Jason McColgan) lets us know that something’s off with Ben’s family. Ben’s mother Margaret (Shaw) and milquetoast stepbrother Thomas (Lowden) live in a decaying manor that Ben is expected to eventually take over. When Charlotte and Ben announce plans to move to Australia, Margaret goes ballistic. After finding out Charlotte’s pregnant, her weaselly doctor (Anton Lesser) tells Margaret, leaving the conflicted Charlotte with no choice but to keep the baby. After Ben’s death, Margaret and Thomas force Charlotte to live with them, first gaslighting her into staying, then slowly restricting her more and more. After an escape attempt, they lock her into a single room, citing concerns for Charlotte’s mental health.
Marcantonio does a solid, even-handed job of slowly increasing the film’s tension with each new instance of Margaret and Thomas’ obsessive control. He’s helped immensely by a production design team that turns the manor house into a creepy, rotting relic full of peeling wallpaper and moth-eaten taxidermy, morphing over time from Miss Havisham-esque disrepair into a hellish prison. As Margaret, Shaw gets to sink her teeth into a creepy, acidically manipulative role, sparring well with Lawrance’s determined-but-bewildered Charlotte. Lawrance is a fine surrogate for the audience’s frustration, as she rails against, then tries to work around, every weird new obstacle or conspiracy put in her way. The twists of Kindred aren’t terribly surprising, but they’re delivered in such a way that it’s impossible not to react.
What’s fatally lacking in Kindred is a sense of catharsis. Charlotte never gives the audience any reason to think she deserves the treatment being visited on her. Margaret and Thomas’ machinations are so baldly patriarchal and abusive that the only satisfying end to the story is for them to get their comeuppance. Charlotte’s attempts to save herself and her baby, however, are never rewarded with success, and in some cases require out-of-character behavior on the part of people Charlotte tries to ask for help. At a certain point, it starts to feel like all that frustrating build-up is the only thing the film has up its sleeve, and while the ending is chilling, it also seems unnecessarily mean.
Kindred is powered by a strong command of tone and some solid performances – it’s especially great to see Shaw getting to ham it up. However, the movie doesn’t fully embrace its paranoid potential, or explore the emotional reality of its premise. It contains some of the gratifying “I told you so” moments that let audiences really buy into the drama, but lacks payoff. The result is a discomfiting sinking feeling that belies a lack of sympathy for its extremely sympathetic main character. And the ending leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, for reasons that don’t really justify its existence.
“Kindred” is out in select theaters, digital, and VOD on Friday.