The long, dark shadow of “Rosemary’s Baby” dulls the effect of “Kindred,” an artfully made but plainly derivative psychological thriller about an expectant mother who begins to suspect she’s being manipulated by nefarious forces. Writer-director Joe Marcantonio and co-writer Jason McColgan bring some fresh subtext to a familiar story, though not strongly enough to compensate for an approach to the horror genre that’s ultimately more tasteful than terrifying.
“Kindred” works best as a showcase for three superb performances. Tamara Lawrance is a revelation as Charlotte, who becomes pregnant right before she and her boyfriend Ben are planning to move from rural England to Australia. When Ben suffers a fatal accident, Charlotte reluctantly relocates to the sprawling, crumbling estate of Ben’s mother, Margaret (Fiona Shaw), and his stepbrother Thomas (Jack Lowden). There, her aloof hosts attend to her every need, supplying her with a strange-tasting tea while keeping her from asking too many questions about her prenatal care.
Shaw and Lowden are fantastic foils for Lawrance, who has a tricky role to play. As a woman who’s in a vulnerable situation — grieving a loss while feeling physically weakened by her pregnancy — Charlotte isn’t sure how much she should assert herself. It doesn’t help that Thomas is almost suspiciously sweet or that the moody Margaret seems desperate to replace her dead son with a grandchild.
But Marcantonio and McColgan push the vagaries of Charlotte’s situation too far. They purposefully alternate between suggesting the heroine suffers from mental illness — making her unduly paranoid — and insinuating that Margaret and Thomas are part of some cultish conspiracy, possibly also involving the mother-to-be’s doctor and her best friend. The longer the movie goes without settling these questions, the more it inadvertently diminishes its main character, whose hesitancy to wrest control of her life becomes increasingly inexplicable.
The filmmakers do better with some of the smaller questions, such as how do strangers remain sociable with one another when forced by circumstance to become housemates? Both Shaw and Lowden have standout scenes opposite Lawrance, delivering riveting monologues about the tragedies this old British manor has seen. In those moments, Charlotte wavers between genuine sympathy for Margaret and Thomas and quietly scheming to see if she can turn their vulnerability to her advantage — perhaps by getting them to start treating her more as a person and less as the host body for their unborn relative.
“Kindred” doesn’t overemphasize this, but it also clearly matters that Charlotte is Black and that her late boyfriend’s family has a hard time engaging with her in ways that feel sincerely warm. They frequently refer to the child growing inside her as “Ben’s baby” and — under the guise of compassion — keep suggesting that she’s incapable of making her own decisions. It shows some admirable restraint that Marcantonio and McColgan don’t get too heavy-handed with the race angle.
That said, much like the film’s at-times frustrating narrative ambiguity, the choice to keep the themes subtle means that “Kindred” often comes across as way too timid. Unlike “Rosemary’s Baby” — a sharp social satire that was also scary as hell — this movie remains too much at a remove, unwilling to say anything too loudly or to stoop to sensationalism.
In the end, what we’re left with is an exceptionally well-acted motion picture that mostly fails to move.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.