Following the recent streaming release of Daniel Kaluuya’s directiorial debut, The Kitchen, Jamie Carlstrand shares his visit to last year’s London Film Festival where the film, set close to home in the dystopian near-reality of the capital, had its world premiere.
The final night of the 2023 London Film Festival saw the worldwide premiere of the soon to be Netflix released The Kitchen. The film has drawn headlines as the directorial debut for Daniel Kaluuya, but its main attractions are the debut of his co-director Kibwe Tavares and the assured pairing of actors Kano and Jedaiaha Bannerman.
The film is set in a near-future London where growing social inequality has forced many into futuristic ghettos including The Kitchen; a community complete with its own pirate radio station run by Ian Wright but one that is under threat from a succession of increasingly brutal police raids intended to clear out its members. This includes Izi (Kano) who is already on the cusp of leaving The Kitchen and moving up in the world, quite literally, to one of the city’s monolithic new tower blocks. But before this, in his employment at a bizarre eco-funeral directory where corpses are fused with trees, Kano comes upon the funeral of a former girlfriend attended solely by her son Benji (Jedaiaha Bannerman). This prompts Izi, after some initial reticence, to begrudgingly take the now orphaned Benji into his home and teach him how to survive.
If this premise sounds at all familiar to you that is because the film leans heavily into the urban film genre, and the influences of Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, Top boy, which stars Kano, and films like the brilliant Rocks, are clear. Likewise, many of its sci-fi elements are equally as well trodden. The central conceit of Izi dealing with digital bureaucracy to move into his new home contains similarities to the Black Mirror episode Nosedive, while the film’s overall aesthetic bares more than a passing resemblance to the films of Neil Blomkamp.
The film’s screenplay, a collaboration between Kaluuya and screenwriter Joe Murtagh, sadly struggles to move past these influences and carve out its own distinct voice. Instead, the film often finds itself slipping into pre-existing moulds and its narrative can at times feel generic and plodding. There’s no prizes for correctly predicting what some of the major character and plot beats are within about 15 minutes of starting the first reel. Similarly, outside of our duo of Izi and Benji (more on them later) characters can feel frustratingly one-dimensional and many of the ideas they express are never fully fleshed out.
Where the film truly shines is in its world-building and utilisation of its sci-fi setting. The Kitchen exists in a heightened reality which serves to accentuate its themes of economic inequality, racial injustice, and the failure of the social-welfare state. Yet, the film never strays so far into a dystopian reality so as to distance the audience from it or lose its sense of immediacy and prescience. Instead Kaluuya and Tavares, the latter of whom’s background as a trained architect seems to have proved invaluable here, have constructed a tactile, lived-in and plausible world. The pair have clearly thought long and hard about the intricacies of The Kitchen and they take time to depict small day-to-day moments, such as a group of wanton teenagers attacking a drone, which add a real verisimilitude to the film. Indeed, the society projected on screen feels frighteningly reflective of, and not particularly far off, society today. Furthermore, the set pieces have been treated with similar care and attention. The series of police raids on The Kitchen are consistently physical and horrifying while retaining a methodical and systematic air which underpins their regularity and institutionalism. Likewise, a jewellery heist occurring late-on in the film is equal parts thrilling, tense, and unsettling.
Beyond this Kano and Bannerman’s performance add heart to the film through their warm and humorous onscreen chemistry, and they help keep the film a fun watch rather than a 90-minute polemic. The ending also manages to reconcile the optimism of their relationship with the broader and more dyspeptic outlook of the film itself, as it denies the audience complete closure but also provides a payoff to their journey together which proves sentimental without being mawkish.
While it is narratively flawed, and by no means ground-breaking, The Kitchen remains a captivating and enjoyable film. It is a welcome addition to the often-underappreciated leagues of British urban cinema, and a promising first foray into the world of feature film directing from both Kaluuya and Tavares.
Release on Netflix TBA: Expected Early 2024