Producers: Dominic Norris and Jack Lowden   Director: Joe Marcantonio   Screenplay: Joe Marcantonio and Jason McColgan   Cast: Tamara Lawrance, Jack Lowden, Fiona Shaw, Edward Holcroft, Chloe Pirrie, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Michael Nardone and Anton Lesser   Distributor: IFC Midnight

Grade: B

If you think for a moment in musical rather than cinematic terms, Joe Marcantonio’s psychological thriller might be thought of as a theme with variations, in which the riffs on the original material, while essentially repetitive, grow more and more elaborate and frantic as the piece progresses.  “Kindred” reaches a narrative crescendo at the end, and while it’s satisfying enough, you might be disappointed that it doesn’t provide much of a surprise. 

The protagonist is Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance), loving wife to Scottish veterinarian Ben (Edward Holcroft).  On a visit to his mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw), a widow deeply concerned about the preservation of the family name and estate, they announce their intention to move to Australia, partially at least because they want to get away from her.  She’s angry over the news, and they part unhappily.

Shortly afterward two major events occur.  Charlotte is told by Dr. Richards (Anton Lesser), the stern family physician who dresses more like a funeral director, that she’s pregnant—an unexpected revelation, since she’s been on the pill and has serious doubts about becoming a mother.  (Her own suffered from prenatal mental problems and post-partum depression, and she’s afraid she might follow suit.)  Second, Ben is fatally injured by a horse he’s treating, sending Charlotte into an emotional tailspin after Margaret blames her for his death.

Margaret insists that her daughter-in-law come to live in the family mansion with her and Thomas (Jack Lowden), the son of her second husband who effectively serves as her loyal factotum, keeping the estate in order and even preparing the meals.  Charlotte would prefer to return to the cottage she and Ben shared after a short stay, but Margaret tells her the bank has foreclosed on the place, leaving her little choice but to stay, despite her mother-in-law’s imperious and generally condescending demeanor.  (Charlotte, as it happens, is black, but Margaret seems less bothered by the color of her skin than by her family background.  Her main concern is with the wellbeing of Ben’s child, who can be the bearer of the family name into the next generation.)      

Charlotte rebels against the restrictions Margaret and Dr. Richards impose on her to ensure the baby’s health, and feels increasingly like a captive rather than a guest.  She takes some solace from the presence of Thomas, an endlessly solicitous sort who tries to mitigate the chilly atmosphere with ostentatious kindness, though his motives remain suspect. 

Nevertheless Charlotte grows more and more desperate, and attempts to escape several times.  She even contemplates attacking Margaret, who suffers from a bad hip and uses a cane, taking advantage of Thomas’ kindness to steal a knife and conceal it in her room.  Her repeated failure to succeed at extricating herself—in one instance as the result of a betrayal by Jane (Chloe Pirrie), whom he had considered a trustworthy friend—makes her situation at the estate worse and worse.  A last frantic effort leads to her giving birth in what amount to emergency circumstances. 

The question that dominates “Kindred” is whether Charlotte is being mistreated or is actually deteriorating mentally and in need of help.  Certainly the actions of Margaret, Richards and even Thomas seem suspect, but one must keep in mind that the story is told, until the close, entirely from Charlotte’s perspective, and the nefarious appearance of what they do could be in her mind.  While Richards remains a grim figure on the margins, moreover, both Margaret and Thomas are provided with monologues that explain their conduct in ways that can be read as sympathetic, if morally questionable. 

Yet throughout there are intimations of supernatural forces at work in the periodic intrusion of crows, harbingers of darkness as it were, at Charlotte’s window, and at the end a dangerous flock of them take a Hitchcockian role in obstructing her second attempt to get away in the family car and evade the realization of Margaret and Thomas’ plans for the infant.  Of course one can read the denouement as a figment of Charlotte’s tortured imagination, but as played it seems intended as a confirmation of her worst fears. 

One might find the enigmatic nature of much of what happens in the film frustrating, but for the most part Marcantonio and his cohorts behind the camera—production designer Derek Wallace and cinematographer Carlos Catalán—fashion an eerie mood that doesn’t veer into absurdity.  The unhurried editing by Fiona Desouza and effective score by Natalie Holt and Jack Halama add to the mood.

And the cast is excellent.  Anton Lesser might come across too much as the younger brother of Angus Scrimm, but Shaw and Lowden both deliver nuanced performances rather than mere caricatures, investing Margaret and Thomas with shading that keeps them recognizably human rather than monsters.  And Holcroft makes a likable young heir to the throne cut down in his prime.

It’s definitely Lawrance who dominates the proceedings, however, generating both concern for Charlotte’s plight and uncertainty about her emotional fragility.  Her co-stars are formidable, but she remains the pivotal figure around whom they circulate. 

“Kindred” can’t escape a repetitive feel, and its narrative flow sometimes stumbles, but overall it’s a taut, compelling portrait of a woman in distress, whatever its cause.