It's not often that some of cinema's most cherished character actors get the opportunity to take the lead role. Having that 'lived in' look may keep the work regular but more likely to see your name lower down the credits order. Despite over 200 appearances to his name, even an actor like Harry Dean Stanton was rarely seen as the right man. Following his masterful work in Paris, Texas he had to wait over three decades until Lucky provided him with a final opportunity. Toby Jones has largely managed to buck that trend over the years, proving his ability to headline a number of successful films and the small British release, Kaleidoscope, offers another chance to lead from the front.
Written and directed by Toby's brother, Rupert Jones, this narratively dense psychological thriller uses its modest resources to maximum effect, spinning a tale about isolation, parental abuse and mental health. Jones is Carl, a loner who lives a minimal life on a council estate somewhere in London. His material possessions are few and human contact is close to non-existent. That changes when he meets Abby (Sinead Matthews) via an online dating site. After spending some time at a local bar they head back to his place for some drinks in an evening that acts as the centre point for the rest of the film.
Quite what is real or imaginary from this point is open to suggestion. The arrival of Carl's mother, Aileen (Anne Reid), only complicates matters further, their fractured past folding into Carl's distorted view of the world around him. Aileen is keen on repairing their broken relationship while Carl struggles to come to terms with her sudden reappearance in his life. While the events of his evening with Abby remain central to the plot, the ongoing presence of his mother creates an historical context around Carl's increasingly fragile state of mind. Clever use of the sound design and a simple but effective score further add to the air of confusing uncertainty about what we are seeing.
Jones isn't pressed into over-performance despite the stress his character is consumed by. Carl's experience becomes our own, and a lot relies on Jones' ability to convey the conflict going on inside his head, recalling his role in Berberian Sound Studio where he faced up to a similar mental battle. Although this is his film, given the internalised nature of the role there are times when he is in danger of being put into the shade by Anne Reid's calm, authoritative performance. Aileen never comes across as threatening but her dark history lingers in the shadows and her ability to read Carl like a book provides valuable insight once the twists reveal themselves late on.
While the pace does lull on occasion the slow burn approach continues to pose questions that are then answered by further query, the narrative intertwining itself into Carl's deteriorating mental condition. As a debut it's a confident and, at times, stylish attempt from Rupert Jones that blends together bits of Polanski, Loach and early Nolan. It's a film that will no doubt benefit from a second viewing and allow you to piece together the clues that make up the beguiling whole. Kaleidoscope remains true to its title and proves to be an intriguing addition to a strong list of impressive first time British filmmakers this year.