Portrait of Kaye: charming documentary explores the life of an agoraphobic Londoner

Funny tales, home videos and kitsch memorabilia form a layered impression of a life spent within four walls in Ben Reed's intimate documentary.

Portrait of Kaye (2021)
Portrait of Kaye (2021)Courtesy of True Story

Ben Reed’s Portrait of Kaye is a loving, kitschy monument to one woman’s life, presided over by Kaye herself, a lifelong agoraphobic who acts as freewheeling tour guide and storyteller. While the Londoner’s funny tales and curious asides abound, they accumulate into a richly textured account of several interwoven lives.

Kaye’s mother once told her that, if she could live her life again; she’d have been “a high-class prostitute”. Kaye makes this revelation with a twinkle in her eye, but as we learn more about her mother and father’s relationship, it becomes emblematic of her mother’s life, lived without physical intimacy after a devastating heartbreak. In Kaye’s own story, we hear about a neighbour, Lorenzo, with whom Kaye has become infatuated since her husband’s recent death. It begins as a throwaway remark about a crush on a handsome young man but evolves into a far more poignant tale of romance, intimacy and what it means to be isolated.

There is something theatrical about the film’s set-up. Kaye relays anecdotes directly to the camera, animating them with cockney patter and colourful detail, while typically framed against the saturated and crammed interior that she’s spent 70 years looking at and adding paraphernalia to – from the page of a 30-year-old calendar to a tattered scrap of Christmas wrapping paper.

A playwright and set designer at the top of their craft couldn’t have fashioned a more perfect distillation of a particular working-class milieu – a world of music halls and seaside photo opportunities that Kaye herself, ironically, has little direct experience of. The form allows her the space to express herself but also echoes the limitations of a life restrained by walls, and the hoarded trinkets that connect her to, and shield her from, the outside.

While the film is, to some extent, a 60-minute monologue, in which Kaye guides the audience through her personal snow-globe universe – one populated by a library of VHS tapes, bawdy jokes and pictures of Barbara Windsor – the director feels ever-present. Reed rarely interjects but Kaye’s recurring phrase of “what d’you reckon, Ben?” reminds us that she is performing to someone in the room. This not only emphasises her larger-than-life persona but also draws our attention to the evident reciprocal warmth of their relationship.

Reed lived next door to Kaye for a time, and the affection that he has for her shines through in this gem of a film. It is part character study, part time-capsule, but somehow far more expansive than either of those terms might immediately suggest. Much like its protagonist, Portrait of Kaye transcends its confines through the preservation of memories.

Portrait of Kaye is available to stream on True Story Film now.