Propelling us into a vision of social decay and alienated living that’s meant to hit hard, The Kitchen is, at the very least, a beautifully designed effort, the fruit of a collaboration between architect-turned-filmmaker Kibwe Tavares and Daniel Kaluuya, who has the triple-threat credit of co-directing, co-writing and co-producing it, without playing an acting role.
The city they’ve built here with gifted production designer Nathan Parker is something quite special: a credible, arresting glimpse of our future capital as a dystopolis of crammed-together high rises, where the disenfranchised live in prison-like brutalist squalor, watched over insidiously by drones and subject all the time to arbitrary police raids.
“The Kitchen” is one such housing project, stitched together for the film’s purposes from buildings in Bethnal Green, Holloway Prison, and a tottering complex outside Paris called Damiers de Dauphiné, like a Lego stairway to the sky.
One of its residents is an introspective loner called Izi, played with sturdy melancholy by grime pioneer and Top Boy star Kane Robinson (aka Kano). He works at a funeral home of sorts called Life After Life, selling cremation packages to the bereaved that involve a plant being sown in the deceased’s ashes. The Barbican’s conservatory doubles as the HQ for this rewilding mission, with precious little greenery anywhere else on screen.
One day, Izi recognises a name on the schedule of the dead: a young mother he used to know, whose teenage orphan Benji (Jedaiah Bannerman, in his debut) is the only person present at her service. Benji, alone at a vulnerable age, leaps to the assumption that Izi might be his father. He tracks him down in The Kitchen, just at the point when Izi’s application for an apartment uptown – a sleek, sterile unit he’s waited years to afford – comes through. He faces a combined hit of gentrification guilt and the new pressures of surrogate-or-maybe-not fatherhood.
The groundwork is laid here for something potentially high-octane – think La Haine meets Ready Player One – but 20 minutes in, the film enters a holding pattern it never really escapes. Given the years spent developing what they’ve given us, it’s a great pity Kaluuya and co-writer Joe Murtagh (Calm with Horses) didn’t strap a bit more dynamite to their script, or pick an antagonist: bursts of barbarism from faceless riot police are simply dialled in to boost tension every reel or two.
Even when it dawdles, it does all look terrific. An underground roller disco is a sumptuous neon rave, while the use of London’s architecture shows killer ingenuity and historical awareness on Tavares’s part, as he first displayed in a 2012 thesis project, Robots of Brixton.
The Kitchen sounds just as good, too, with dancehall/Afrobeat needle-drops that slap hard, imaginative atmospherics, and a brooding score by Labrinth and Alex Baranowski that merits heavy rotation once you’re out. It’s a film of ideas and tremendously assertive style all round – just not enough oomph.
15 cert, 98 min. On Netflix from Jan 19