There’s something spooky about a poky British flat, particularly the variety of high-rise apartment that seems permanently trapped in a sort of 1950s arrested development. The walls are brown, the fittings decidedly plastic-looking and the walls look stained with nicotine even if they aren’t. It’s within this oppressive environment that writer-director Rupert Jones sets his unorthodox psycho-thriller Kaleidoscope. Indeed, the story almost never leaves the confines of the protagonist’s shabby flat – a simulacrum of his fractured brain.
Fortunately for Jones, directing his sophomore feature after 2013’s The Answer to Everything, he has the perfect actor for that central role within his own immediate family. His older sibling, Toby Jones, portrays Carl, whom we meet pottering around his near-silent, almost empty flat. He looks ruefully at a lipstick mark on one of his glasses and then walks upstairs, where a body lies dead in his bathroom. As time travels in both directions, we witness the looming force of Carl’s visiting mother (Anne Reid) and his unusual date with fast-talking blonde Abby (Sinead Matthews).
Much like the child’s toy that gives the film its title, Kaleidoscope is a film that shifts and reforms with every crank of the storytelling gears. It’s an inscrutable, opaque beast that resists any attempt to pin it down. On the one hand, there’s a joy and intrigue to the movie’s puzzle box plotting but, on the other, it’s difficult to build much emotional attachment when the story continuously squirms out of the audience’s grasp.
It’s useful, then, that Toby Jones is an absolute dream in the lead role. His back catalogue is full of roles pregnant with hidden malevolence, not least his sleazy Alfred Hitchcock in TV movie The Girl or his Savile-like predator in the latest series of Sherlock. That undercurrent of darkness is ideal for Carl, who may or may not be a monster and certainly has demons lurking in his past. Whether those demons are real or imagined is a question the film poses without really volunteering an answer, for better or worse.
The issue crystallises around the presence of Carl’s mother – played by Brit icon Anne Reid. Their relationship clearly tips towards the latter half of love-hate, but the movie quickly establishes a level of mystery around whether her presence is as corporeal as it initially seems. The same is true of Abby, played with infectious energy and fun by Matthews, who was last seen as a struggling mother in the brilliant drama Jellyfish.
There’s a certain irony to the presence of the kaleidoscope, given the decided lack of colour in the film, which exists in a washed-out, bleak version of Britain. While Philipp Blaubach’s cinematography amplifies the dread and the oppression, Mike Prestwood Smith’s atmospheric score is the kaleidoscope, conjuring an offbeat cacophony that’s every bit as unbalancing as the story’s bizarre, time-hopping structure.
But ultimately, there’s a sense that Kaleidoscope is a little bit of a case of style over substance. Unlike the similarly bleak and vastly superior British genre film Possum last year, this is a movie that lacks the final twist of the narrative knife to ensure that it lives long in the memory. The trio of central performances elevate the material, but the younger Jones is unable to find the same success in his script and, as a result, the finished product is a lot like the toy that gives it its name. The gimmick is fun, but the reshaping colours eventually fall into a pattern of diminishing returns.
Dir: Rupert Jones
Scr: Rupert Jones
Cast: Toby Jones, Anne Reid, Sinead Matthews, Cecilia Noble
Prd: Maggie Monteith, Matthew James Wilkinson
DOP: Philipp Blaubach
Music: Mike Prestwood Smith
Run time: 100 mins
Kaleidoscope is on digital platforms in the UK now and available on DVD from 23rd September.