Review: ‘Kindred,’ starring Tamara Lawrance, Jack Lowden and Fiona Shaw

November 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Fiona Shaw and Tamara Lawrance in “Kindred” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Kindred”

Directed by Joe Marcantonio

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed rural part of England, the dramatic thriller “Kindred” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one black person and one Indian person) representing the working-class, the middle-class and the wealthy.

Culture Clash: After the father of her unborn child dies, a pregnant woman is held captive by the domineering paternal grandmother who wants to raise the child as her own.

Culture Audience: “Kindred” will appeal primarily to people who are looking for an artsier, British version of a Lifetime movie, but without a predictable ending.

Chloe Pirrie, Fiona Shaw, Tamara Lawrance and Jack Lowden in “Kindred” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

Just like the pregnant protagonist in “Kindred” is essentially imprisoned by her unborn child’s domineering grandmother, viewers will often be frustrated by how this dramatic film can hold people hostage with the hope that things will get better for the protagonist. “Kindred” succeeds in conveying the stifling atmosphere of someone being held captive, under the guise of “it’s for your own good.” But this oppressive tone is almost to a fault, because parts of the movie drag with too much repetition and the sense that the captured heroine could’ve made better choices to get out of her predicament. The movie’s ending will disappoint a great deal of the audience who might be expecting something more formulaic.

However, what will keep most viewers interested in the movie are the compelling performances of the two actresses who portray the women at the center of this power struggle over an unborn child. “Kindred” (which takes place in England) shows hints of being a horror film, but it’s mostly a dramatic thriller about a family feud. It’s one of those movies where the villain doesn’t think she’s evil but sincerely believes that what’s she’s doing is morally right and in the best interest of her family.

“Kindred” is the feature-film debut of director Joe Marcantonio, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jason McClogan. There are parts of the movie where you have to wonder if the screenwriters actually consulted with enough women (especially any women who’ve been pregnant) for some level of authenticity, because some of the actions of the expectant mother in this story just don’t ring true for a pregnant woman who’s trying to save herself and her unborn child. Or maybe this is just a case of a movie that knows it’s got to fill up its feature-length time by having the protagonist make dumb decisions.

At any rate, the movie’s target audience seems to be primarily women, and yet the filmmakers aren’t too concerned with filling in some blanks about the main characters that women usually like to know about for movies like “Kindred.” The movie largely redeems itself in a scene with a heart-to-heart conversation between the heroine and the chief villain to fill in some of those blanks. (It’s the best scene in the movie.) But the romance that sets off the series of events in this movie is barely explained.

In the beginning of “Kindred,” Ben Clayton (played by Edward Holcroft) and his live-in girlfriend Charlotte (played by Tamara Lawrance), who appear to be in their late 20s or early 30s, are getting ready to go over to his widowed mother’s house for a visit that the couple is dreading. Ben tells Charlotte, “She’s going to hate me,” as an indication that they’re going to tell his mother some news that will make her angry and/or sad. Charlotte replies, “Stop worrying. It’s going to be okay.”

Unfortunately, the movie never mentions why Ben and Charlotte are together and for how long. It would certainly go a long way in explaining why viewers are supposed to believe that this couple is compatible and have made a life-changing choice that they are now going to tell Ben’s mother: Ben and Charlotte are planning to move to Australia. Viewers are supposed to assume that Ben and Charlotte are a happy couple just because they’re together, without getting any sense of what Ben and Charlotte might have in common or what their life goals are when they get to Australia.

Ben and Charlotte arrive at his mother’s house, which is a very large manor in an unnamed rural part of England. Ben is very nervous, while Charlotte is much calmer. Ben’s bossy mother Margaret (played by Fiona Shaw) isn’t the only one in the house who’s got him on edge. There’s a man named Thomas (played by Jack Lowden) who lives there and who’s about the same age as Ben.

Thomas has a very odd relationship with Margaret, who treats Thomas like a son but also treats him like a servant who’s at her beck and call, 24 hours a day. Thomas acts as the house’s butler, chef and handyman. He’s very amiable and eager-to-please, but it’s clear that he will do anything that Margaret tells him to do. Charlotte later finds out the hard way.

Ben is noticeably jealous of Thomas, especially when Margaret describes Thomas as Ben’s “brother.” Ben is quick to reply every time: “He’s not my brother.” It doesn’t come out until later in this movie (and this isn’t really a spoiler) why Thomas is living with Margaret.

Ben’s father William died of cancer when he was a child. Years later, when Ben was a teenager, Margaret got romantically involved with an abusive man, who came to live in the manor with his son. That son was Thomas.

It’s never made clear in the movie if Margaret actually married this abusive man, but she describes the relationship later in the movie as “the biggest mistake of my life.” It also explains why she treats Thomas like a son, because Thomas has lived with Margaret, ever since he and his father moved into the house. Thomas’ father died years ago when Thomas was a teenager. His cause of death is revealed in the movie.

This reason for why Thomas is considered “family” to Margaret isn’t revealed until the last third of the film, but it actually would’ve been better to have revealed this information sooner in the film. Up until then, viewers have to keep guessing how Thomas came into Margaret’s life, why she treats Thomas like a son, and why she’s closer to Thomas than she is to her own biological son.

When Ben and Charlotte tell Margaret their big news about moving to Australia, Margaret predictably takes it very hard. She can’t believe that Ben wouldn’t want to stay in England and live at the manor, which he is sure to inherit from her. Ben tells his mother that he doesn’t care about the manor. Margaret gets so upset that she abruptly leaves the room. Thomas invites them to stay for the lunch that was prepared, but Ben and Charlotte decide that the visit has already gone badly, so they both decide to leave.

It’s never really stated what Ben does for a living, but Charlotte works as an outdoor employee at a farm. All the movie shows her doing at work is shoveling hay at a horse stable, when she suddenly vomits. Her co-worker Jane (played by Chloe Pirrie) is nearby and comes to her aid. Charlotte is feeling dizzy, so they decide to go to the nearest hospital to get Charlotte some medical assistance.

Charlotte then gets some news that’s a surprise to her but not a surprise to anyone who knows that when a woman of childbearing age suddenly vomits and feels dizzy in a movie, chances are that means she’s pregnant. Charlotte doesn’t have her own doctor because the doctor who ends up treating her during this pregnancy is named Dr. Richards (played by Anton Lesser), who seems to be the chief doctor in this small-town medical facility. Charlotte meets Dr. Richards for the first time during this hospital visit. And what do you know? He happens to be Margaret’s doctor too.

Why doesn’t Charlotte have her own doctor in a nation with universal health care? It’s never explained why, but viewers can speculate that Charlotte probably mistrusts doctors because Charlotte’s mother (who is either dead or totally estranged from her) had a history of mental illness. Her mother, who used to be a piano teacher, was diagnosed with perinatal psychosis and postpartum depression. In other words, the mental illness was exacerbated by the pregnancy and birth of Charlotte.

Needless to say, Charlotte had a very unhappy childhood. It’s never explained who really raised Charlotte and at what point in her life Charlotte cut off communication with her mother. But it’s clear, based on Charlotte’s negative reaction to finding out that she’s pregnant, Charlotte doesn’t think that she’s ready to become a mother and she has some deep-seated fears that she could pass on mental-illness genes to her unborn child. One of the first things that she asks Dr. Richards when he tells her that she’s pregnant is how she can get an abortion. He advises her to discuss the pregnancy with Ben first.

But Charlotte doesn’t really get a chance to do that, because by the time she returns home to the modest cottage that she shares with Ben, he has already decorated it with pregnancy congratulations. How did Ben find out? Dr. Richards told Margaret about Charlotte’s pregnancy, and Margaret told Ben.

It’s a blatant violation of patient/doctor confidentiality and something that could get a doctor in trouble. Charlotte knows that, and she half-jokingly says that she could report Dr. Richards for this violation. Ben’s enthusiasm over the pregnancy slowly makes her change her mind about having an abortion. However, she ignores this red flag that the doctor would go behind her back and violate her patient privacy.

Although Charlotte changes her mind about the abortion and decides to keep the baby, one thing that she hasn’t changed her mind about is moving to Australia with Ben. Margaret assumes that Ben and Charlotte will get married before the baby is born and that the couple will want to stay in England and live in the manor, but Margaret is wrong about all of those assumptions. Ben and Charlotte are firm in telling her that they have no plans to get married and they are still moving to Australia.

Charlotte and Ben try to comfort Margaret by telling her that they can still keep in touch through visits and videoconferencing, but Margaret flies into a rage and tells them how ungrateful they are and that they’re making a big mistake. Margaret screams, “You are not stealing my flesh and blood to go to the other side of the planet!” Margaret also cruelly says that it would be easier for Charlotte to decide to move to Australia because Charlotte has no family, but Margaret can’t understand why Ben would want to move.

Ben and Charlotte reach a stalemate with Margaret, but the couple remains in solidarity to continue with what was planned. Their lives take a tragic turn when Ben is doing some work in a stable, he accidentally gets kicked in the head by a horse, and he dies in the hospital. Charlotte and Margaret are devastated, of course. Thomas is also saddened, but Ben’s death doesn’t affect him as deeply as it does Margaret and Charlotte.

When they get the news at the hospital that Ben has died, Margaret blurts out to Charlotte that it’s Charlotte’s fault that Ben died. Charlotte becomes enraged and lunges at Margaret and starts to strangle her. Thomas is able to break up the altercation by pulling Charlotte off of Margaret. The implication is clear: Charlotte can be a tough and violent fighter, but she doesn’t really act that way for most of the movie.

Charlotte doesn’t have any family or friends to turn to during her overwhelming grief. And she gets more bad news a few days later when Margaret tells her that Ben had stopped paying the mortgage on the cottage (which was in his name) and it’s being sold in foreclosure. Really? That quickly? This is the part of the movie where a lot of viewers might yell at the screen that Margaret is probably lying.

After all, it’s clear that Ben feared and mistrusted his mother so much that he wanted to move far, far away from her and sever any financial ties he had to her. It doesn’t make sense that Charlotte would blindly trust Margaret, even though Margaret makes a half-hearted apology for the mean-spirited remarks that she previously made. And then if you factor in that Dr. Richards can’t be trusted either, you have a recipe for disaster.

Meanwhile, Thomas has already gone to the cottage, packed up Charlotte’s possessions, and brought them to the manor. Charlotte agrees to temporarily stay at the manor until the child is born. The movie makes it looks like Charlotte is so consumed with grief that she can’t be bothered to find another place to live.

However, “Kindred” has a major plot hole because Charlotte never bothers to look into Ben’s financial affairs now that she’s going to be a single mother raising his child. Did Ben have a will? Did he have life insurance? Did Charlotte and Ben have any joint bank accounts? What are the laws in England when it comes to what a child can inherit if the parents were not married but living together in a common-law domestic partner situation?

These are the things an expectant mother in Charlotte’s situation would think about if the father of her child suddenly dies. But these issues are never mentioned in “Kindred.” It’s why the biggest flaw of this movie is how it treats Charlotte as if she’s an idiot.

Charlotte’s willful ignorance kind of contradicts this image that the filmmakers want Charlotte to have of someone who’s been on her own for a while and supposedly knows how to take care of herself. You’d never know it though, by the way they portray Charlotte as this helpless, pitiful and broken person who lets Margaret take over her life.

Faster than you can say “weak-willed doormat,” Margaret convinces Charlotte that her only option is to stay in the manor until the baby is born. Margaret tells Charlotte that she can still move to Australia after the baby is born, but viewers watching this movie can easily see that Margaret has no intention of letting that happen.

Charlotte and Ben being in an interracial relationship is never mentioned as a problem for old-fashioned and stuck-up Margaret. Margaret seems to have more of a problem with Charlotte being from a lower social class than Ben, and she doesn’t want her grandchild in a working-class environment. Margaret expresses some sexism when she openly declares to Charlotte that she hopes that the child will be a boy.

Margaret tells Charlotte that Dr. Richards has ordered Charlotte to be on strict bed rest until the baby is born. But there’s more than just bed rest that Margaret and Thomas use as a means to keep Charlotte confined to the manor. And sure enough, Charlotte soon finds out that the front gates to the manor are padlocked with heavy chains.

Charlotte gets scolded by Margaret for requests to go outside for a simple walk on the manor’s property or to visit Ben’s grave (he’s buried on the property next to his father) or to do anything outside of the manor. In the rare instances where Charlotte is allowed to leave the house, Thomas must always accompany her. Charlotte becomes more isolated to the point where she’s not even allowed to visit Dr. Richards for prenatal care. Against Charlotte’s objections, Margaret has decided that Charlotte will give birth at the manor, not in a hospital.

And things take a very sinister and creepy turn when Charlotte suspects that she is being drugged. On one occasion, she finds remnants of a crushed pill in the tea that Thomas gives her. And Thomas tells her that she wakes up screaming from nightmares, but she can’t remember ever doing it.

And one morning, she wakes up and is startled to find a fully clothed Thomas sleeping next to her in bed, on top of the bed covers. He’s apologetic but he tells her that she had nightmares the night before and begged him to stay with her. It’s another incident that Charlotte says that she doesn’t remember.

Does Charlotte try to escape? Of course, she does. But she makes some really bad, bungling decisions that get in the way of her escape efforts. Does she try to call for help? During the chaotic ride to the hospital when Ben got injured, Thomas claimed that Charlotte’s phone was broken. He promises to get it fixed, but he never does. And when she does get access to a phone, she doesn’t call the police. She turns to other people for help, and that ends up being a very big mistake.

“Kindred” tries to bring some spooky elements into the story, by constantly featuring crows showing up outside at suspenseful moments. And when Charlotte is sleeping, an image of a horse keeps appearing, but it’s implied that horse is part of her dreams. There’s no real supernatural meaning for any of these animals. Margaret isn’t a secret witch and this isn’t a horror story about the manor being haunted by evil spirits.

Instead, the movie goes back to the same repetition of Charlotte trying to think of ways to escape and her efforts somehow being thwarted. Does Charlotte escape? Does she give birth? And if so, what happens to the baby?

Those questions are answered in the movie, which is mainly worth watching for the battle of wills between the heroine and the villain, since Lawrance and Shaw give performances that add depth to their roles that would have been too shallow if portrayed by less-talented actresses. These performances elevate the quality of “Kindred,” which has a lot of characteristics of being a mediocre “woman in peril” movie that will leave some viewers cold.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Kindred” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on November 6, 2020.