The terrors of pregnancy and horror make fine bedfellows. The genre lends itself beautifully to exploring our deepest and most vulnerable fears, digging into the parts of our collective lives that we would feel uncomfortable discussing in public. Rosemary’s Baby is, of course, the benchmark against which all others continue to be measured. But where that iconic film explored the fear of conspiracy to control the pregnant body alongside the paranoia of giving birth to something unnatural, Kindred instead takes a more realistic approach, shedding light on the horrors of pregnancy itself without the influence of cults or the Devil.
A beautiful and elegiac film about the trauma of pregnancy, Kindred is better in theory than in execution. Though it’s full of compelling imagery and atmosphere befitting a Brontë novel, the plot, particularly in its final moments, feels thin and a little disappointing after such an evocative buildup.
The film centers around Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance, Small Axe: Education), a young woman with plans to move from England to Australia with her boyfriend, Ben (Edward Holcroft, Kingsmen: The Secret Service), a transition made more difficult by the guilt of his overbearing mother, Margaret (Fiona Shaw, Killing Eve). Shortly after finding out that she’s pregnant, there’s a tragic accident that costs Ben his life, and Charlotte finds herself an unwilling guest of Margaret and her stepson, Thomas (Jack Lowden, Dunkirk). Prevented from leaving the stately albeit decrepit family manor, Charlotte carries her child to term, a prisoner of her unwilling body, potentially fracturing mind, and an unfamiliar place.
Charlotte, like many women, has no desire to have a child. After finding out she’s pregnant, some of Charlotte’s first words to the doctor are “What if I don’t want it? The baby. What if I don’t want to go through with it?” Her doctor looks at her as if her head had just spun around on her shoulders. “It’s a shock,” she continues, “I just want to know what my options are.”
You see, Charlotte had been prepared. She was on the pill, but, as we all well know, no method of contraception is 100% effective. She tries to talk to her friend and colleague about the pregnancy, her fears, and her complete lack of desire to be a mother — a pretty key part of becoming one if you ask this writer. Along with Margaret, the doctor, and the ultrasound technicians, she’s consistently fed painfully familiar placations: “this is all normal”, “once the baby’s here, you’ll be a natural.” Only once does Margaret really open up to her about her own terrible experience with pregnancy, admitting, however ashamedly, that she felt nothing for her now-deceased son for the first several years of his life. And yet, she still became a mother, despite not wanting to.
This concept, forcing an unwilling — and grieving — woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, is horrific in its own right. A timely topic internationally as we consider the potentially tenuous state of Roe v. Wade, that only 58 out of 196 countries have legalized abortion, and that it’s an illegal (and punishable) offense to have a miscarriage in places like El Salvador.
The terror of Charlotte’s circumstances is amplified by her inability to liberate herself from her situation or find someone to help her. In this regard, Tamara Lawrance does a remarkable job. Her painful experience of captivity and relentless gaslighting will strike many women watching to their very core.
What’s more is the reason she didn’t want to be a mother. It’s apparent from her initial diagnosis that motherhood was never something she’d planned for, but why? Gradually, we learn of her mother’s “illness”: perinatal psychosis that transitioned into a long-lasting postpartum condition that affected her entire life and family. Alone in the world with no family besides her now-deceased partner, Charlotte never wanted to risk her own wellbeing for anything, least of all an unwanted pregnancy.
This is the heart and soul of the film, one that would have benefitted from the presence of female writers. Writer Jason McColgan and co-writer and director Joe Marcantonio (in their feature debuts) created harsh breaks in character with Charlotte that seem jarring. Where, at first, she was desperately trying to escape the dilapidated manor, resenting what was happening to her body, by the end of the film she’s eager to be a mother, to save her baby from presumed or real dangers. This uncharacteristic shift in behavior does a huge disservice to the sensitive material on screen, only further emphasizing the very dangerous rhetoric that “this is all normal” and “once the baby’s here, you’ll be a natural.”
While there is no supernatural presence or influence in Kindred, the film tries to handle the very real (albeit rare) condition of antenatal and postpartum psychosis. Said to affect approximately 1 to 2 in 1000 deliveries, mothers suffering this condition can encounter symptoms as mild as hyperactivity, mood swings, and difficulty communicating or as severe as auditory and visual hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia. In one scene, an ultrasound technician reassures Charlotte that, when she was pregnant, she saw clowns in her dreams, so seeing things is normal. Only Charlotte’s seeing things while she’s awake, a symptom that is decidedly not normal and, in fact, deeply concerning. That no one really takes these statements seriously and simultaneously gaslights her into believing she’s too unwell to leave speaks to the ongoing and very serious issues surrounding women and medical gaslighting.
Unfortunately, McColgan and Marcantonio don’t address these issues in a way that adequately handles or even capitalizes on the very real fear, anxiety, and despair they cause. It leaves the ensuing horror feeling half-realized and occasionally listless. As a result, the films’ final minutes land with a bit of a thud, especially after a strong start to the denouement. In the end, we’re left with more questions than answers, some satisfyingly ambiguous while others just seem clumsy.
While the script may leave something to be desired, the film is executed beautifully. Again, it can’t be overstated that Lawrance’s performance as Charlotte is outstanding. She pulls us into her turmoil kicking and screaming nearly as loudly as she does, creating a palpable and unending sense of dread. Fiona Shaw lends the overbearing Margaret hints of Mommie Dearest laced with manic, manipulative fixation. A master manipulator, she desperately clings to her son, resenting Charlotte’s very presence in his life, forget the fact that she emboldens him to chase his dreams. Shaw’s menacing behavior — periodic outbursts of rage, unpredictable moments of solemn compassion, and vicious, unrelenting gaslighting — is horrifying to watch, and will undoubtedly have you crawling out of your skin. Meanwhile, Jack Lowden’s painfully awkward Thomas offers an added splash of deceit, forcing us to question his motives at every turn.
The film is also beautiful to look at. Cinematographer Carlos Catalán brings his cool, moody eye from Killing Eve to Kindred’s sprawling countryside and dilapidated manor. Focusing on dirty floors, cracked walls, and windows that feel as though cleaning them would be a Sisyphean task, he balances depictions of a cold reality with alienating fever dreams beautifully. It’s his artful attention to detail that manages to breathe some life into the otherwise dying house, one that truly could have been a character all its own. Themes of familial obligation, being haunted by legacy, and trapped by history are hinted at where they would have benefitted from more careful attention in both the script and final execution.
All of that said, there is something about the humanity of this specific type of dread that seeps into your bones and hangs on for dear life. It’s the type of horror that taps into the fears we’re either too afraid to articulate, or would rather keep to ourselves lest we be judged. And yet, the issues being discussed — the fear of inheriting mental illnesses, passing along hereditary issues to our young, losing ourselves to a pregnancy, giving up our bodies as a vessel to something we may not want — are common. Relatively speaking, anyway. They just exist in a place and time where they’re still somehow too taboo to articulate safely.
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