Directed by Joe Marcantonio. Screenplay by Marcantonio & Jason McColgan.
Starring Tamara Lawrance, Fiona Shaw, Jack Lowden, Edward Holcroft, Chloe Pirrie, Anton Lesser, Kiran Sonia Sawar, & Natalia Kostrzewa.
Kreo Films FZ / Head Gear Films / Reiver Pictures
Not Rated / 101 minutes
Drama / Horror / Mystery / Thriller
The following essay contains significant spoilers! You’ve been warned.
Some grim horror still opts to leave its viewers with a glimmer of hope, no matter how slight. Then there are films like Kindred, which offer no such glimmers, only depressing darkness. Not to say those films are bad. I often enjoy a horror that ends and leaves me speechless with its desperate intensity. Joe Marcantonio’s feature film debut is at times uneven, but never, ever lets up on the doom, thrusting its Black female protagonist into an unfamiliar, uncaring world dominated by patriarchal values and bourgeois whiteness.
Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance) and Ben (Edward Holcroft) are headed to his childhood home, where his mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw) and his stepbrother Thomas (Jack Lowden) live in a decaying Gothic mansion that’s been in the family for generations. Charlotte finds out while they’re that she’s pregnant, though isn’t quite sure she wants to keep the baby. Tragedy strikes after Ben’s killed in a nasty horse stable accident, leaving Charlotte stranded with Margaret and Thomas. At first, the pregnant lady thinks her dead lover’s family are hospitable, however, it fast becomes apparent they have sinister designs on her and, more importantly, her unborn child.
This isn’t horror full of jump scares, and it’s certainly not focused on gore. Kindred works its way under the skin, and the fingernails even, until the suffocating atmosphere is unbearable. Charlotte’s situation gets more constricting with each passing scene, making the audience wonder if the tension will ever let up. The fact she’s Black is a significant detail that draws off the U.K.’s history of colonialism. Her fight against a rich white family makes the horror of her predicament intersectional, and exponentially terrifying. The film cleverly explores issues of class and race that are old and contemporary at once, making clear that Western society has come a long way but made very little social progress during its journey.
Something that immediately comes up at first mention of going to the doctor—where Charlotte will discover she’s pregnant—is how different healthcare is for Black and white people. Jane (Chloe Pirrie) suggests that Charlotte go to a doctor after the latter experiences a dizzy spell and vomits. Charlotte replies: “I don‘t like doctors.” At first it’s a throwaway comment that seems like it has nothing to do with race whatsoever, however, later on the idea of medical racism/bias reoccurs when even the doctors at the local hospital seem in on the plot to keep Charlotte locked away in Margaret’s mansion. One of the doctors is a woman of colour, yet she defers to the older white doctor rather than listen to Charlotte’s story of forcible confinement. Likewise, Charlotte’s mother, who had mental health issues, becomes a fulcrum against which Margaret and Thomas leverage themselves to make Charlotte appear crazy, giving them and the doctor(s) ammunition to use against her. Once more the significance of Charlotte being Black is more than plot fodder. Her race plays into real social issues. In the U.K., Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, and black babies are at 121% increased risk of being delivered stillborn in comparison with white babies. Marcantonio’s film comes at an inadvertently, unfortunately perfect time for its social focus since COVID-19 has laid bare medical racism in the Western world. So when we recall that early scene where Charlotte expresses her distrust of doctors, she’s making a far more important statement than many white viewers will initially realise.
Kindred is a Gothic story in the perfectly traditional sense. Charlotte becomes a holdover over the Victorian madwoman. Again, the use of her mother’s mental health issues against her echo the old Gothic perceptions of women as fragile people prone to hysterics, and so she’s further locked away the more the movie progresses until she reaches the inevitable conclusion: a room in the psychiatric ward. Charlotte being a Black woman, in conjunction with the madwoman status forced upon her, likewise conjures an image of Bertha Mason—the Creole woman married to Edward Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre. Except, in this version, Charlotte does not get locked away in an attic by her husband, rather she’s adrift among her dead husband’s family who’ve taken upon themselves to lock her away in their Gothic mansion. In some ways Charlotte ends up worse off than Bertha, whose final act of bittersweet liberation is burning her husband’s house down before committing suicide. She gets no escape from torment, having her baby stolen to be raised by a white family and being involuntarily committed to an asylum for the rest of her days, whereas Bertha was at least freed upon her tragic death.Not only is Kindred Gothic, its Gothic sensibilities evoke inequalities bred out of the country’s aristocracy by pitting Charlotte, a Black woman without any living family, against a white bourgeois woman whose empire keeps gradually fading away. Legacy and the aristocracy come up after Charlotte and Ben tell his mother they’re having a baby and moving to Australia. Charlotte’s stunned, suggesting her son can’t leave because of their ancestral family home that dates back “nine generations.” The aristocratic legacy of their family is evident in the house itself with a number of large, ageing portraits throughout the mansion, like ancestors literally looking down upon them. Simultaneously, there’s a decadence to the bourgeois estate that speaks to the rot of time. Every room we see around the massive home is slightly decaying; if it’s not the physical deterioration of the estate, it’s the seemingly bare bones decor which might suggest Margaret’s been auctioning off things to keep the bank account full—I mention this only because one scene depicts an angry working class man arguing with Thomas and Margaret about money, implying that the lady of the house is experiencing financial troubles. There’s an even more desperate feeling now to Margaret attempting to hold onto her unborn grandchild, scrambling in a freefall from her high bourgeois perch. It’s as if she sees her whole world crumbling: her biological son wanted to leave the country before he died and his wife might not have wanted to keep their child. And so the plot of the film involves her clinging to anything that will hold that crumbling world together with a sense of normalcy, all the while upholding patriarchal values that treat Charlotte as a mere incubator to carry on the family name.
The way Margaret holds her bourgeois life together is like Rosemary’s Baby on a horrific dose of colonialism. Instead of Satan worshippers ensuring the delivery of Satan’s child for their infernal master it’s a white bourgeois family ensuring the delivery of a child to continue their legacy. The medical racism/bias discussed earlier in this essay comes to bear here because it has roots all the way back in slavery; one of slavery’s many contemporary institutional legacies. Charlotte’s effectively forced into pregnancy. She wasn’t sure she wanted to keep the baby anyway, and that was before Ben died. She’s been robbed of her bodily autonomy by Margaret and Thomas, as well as their various helpers like Jane and the doctor—all of whom are white. The forced pregnancy of a Black woman in Kindred draws uncomfortable, though important, parallels to reproductive horrors committed against Black women during the transatlantic slave trade. This makes the film’s Gothic aspects all the more chilling in light of the fact people in Scotland have recently started to confront their country’s own specific slave-owning past.Others have said the film goes nowhere, but it has a lot going on below the surface, plus the plot kept me guessing right up until the end. I think anybody with a little hope will pull for Charlotte to finally break free and escape from Margaret and Thomas somehow, even if they weren’t so sure she’d actually make it out of that mansion. And this made the ending twice as brutal, seeing that thin sliver of hope get yanked out from under Charlotte, and the audience, like a rug beneath the feet. Kindred is a slow burning Gothic horror that relies more on an ever-increasing sense of dread and terror from its claustrophobic drama than it does horrific imagery, jump scares, or violence.
Most of all, Marcantonio’s film places its familiar elements—the pregnant woman being manipulated by sinister forces, a person trapped in a Gothic mansion, et cetera—into a new container, utilising the Gothic style to tell a story that encompasses a lot of ground between Blackness, mental health, motherhood, and more. Charlotte would’ve been a much different character were she white, though some of her struggles would remain the same. But it’s the important casting of Tamara Lawrance that makes Charlotte so compelling, and she gives agonising life to her character. Kindred isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. For those wanting a modern Gothic horror with added substance, the film holds haunting, unexpected treasures.