Kaleidoscope – Great performances marred by an uneven script
Carl lives alone on a London council estate, and has done ever since he got out of prison a short time ago. Tonight promises to be special, as for the first time since his release, he’s going on a date with a young woman he’s met on the internet. But his date, Abby, hasn’t been quite honest about her intentions, and Carl’s got this problem with alcohol, and one thing leads to another, and when Carl wakes up the next morning in the lounge, he discovers Abby dead in his bathroom. On the day when his hated mother invites herself over for a visit.
Kaleidoscope does not play out as a conventional thriller. Carl does all he can to escape suspicion, which is not as easy as it might seem, but the main focus of the film is on Carl’s mental state. Whilst we start with Carl and his date, the film becomes more tense when Eileen, Carl’s mother, arrives. What exactly the issue is between them is never explained, but Carl clearly loathes her. We are prevented from automatically seeing this as unjust by the very fact that she visits at all, when Carl wants nothing to do with her in the first place. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that she is manufacturing excuse after excuse not to leave, and is trying to establish control over him by any means available. Even if her claims of wanting a reconciliation are sincere, she has not changed enough for that to be possible. Neither is Carl completely powerless. He refuses a blatant attempt at extremely tempting bribery, and he comes up with the most vicious lie possible to tell Eileen, which definitely wounds. Nevertheless, Carl is in a vulnerable place as it is, and Eileen is clever enough to know this. The way she plays with fire has us waiting for the inevitable moment when Carl will snap.
The film has a lot of strengths, manly those that contribute to its overall atmosphere. The film concentrates on its three main characters, Carl, Eileen and Abby, played by Toby Jones, Anne Reid and Sinead Matthews. All of them give great performances, aware that every nuance they create matters. The standout of the three is possibly Reid, since Eileen’s passive aggressiveness is so astonishing. The relationships that Carl has with his date and his mother are fascinating, all the more so because it becomes clear that Carl conflates women he sexually desires with his mother. This isn’t new – hello, Psycho – but it is well done.
The cinematography and production design also stand out, with Carl’s flat emphasising how depressing and drab his life is (The decor in the flat probably hasn’t been renovated since the council estate was originally built.). Though he’s lived there for a while, he’s done little to give it a personal touch, something that Abby picks up on. Mike Prestwood Smith’s music is effectively varied, going from a dream-like guitar piece in the opening to a threatening drum solo as Carl tries to plot his escape from detection.
Unfortunately, the film’s script is its biggest liability, as it never quite gets to where it wants to go. During the first section of the film, the date between Carl and Abby, what we discover about the two hinges more on the actors than the script. This is particularly the case with Carl, since he’s not a great talker. Instead, we get to know him through the expressions on his face, his tone of voice, and the movements he makes. Some of this is the result of the script deliberately being vague. We know that Carl has been in prison, but we never find out why. It’s implied that it has something to do his behaviour when he’s been drinking, but even then we don’t know actually what his issue with alcohol is (Is he a recovering alcoholic? Does alcohol just have an unusual effect on him, even in small amounts? What?) But whilst the script has no obligation to tell us everything, it ends up telling us too little. Carl’s relationship with the man who is presumably his father, for example, would tell us much more about him if it were fleshed out. Characterisation seems to mainly be given through the actors’ performances, rather than the script, though the script does become stronger when Eileen arrives.
At the climax, though, the script throws two plot twists at the audience, and ultimately they fail. The first twist is not new, but it does succeed in keeping up the tension. It brings Carl’s issues with his mother and women to a dramatically logical conclusion, even if it’s not completely consistent with the other events of the film. The second twist, however, feels like the film takes the weakest route possible. It saps the film of much of its interest, and would make me judge the film far more harshly if it had not generated such goodwill with its strengths.
In the end, Kaleidoscope is a well-made film let down badly by its script. Fans of the actors and psychological thriller enthusiasts should keep an eye out for it, but they should also be aware that it’s not going to be a classic.