'The Kindness of Strangers': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
O, the wretched, beautiful humanity.

Zoe Kazan provides the linchpin in Lone Scherfig's New York-set ensemble drama about the intertwined lives of people in crisis or seeking to connect, chosen to open the Berlin Film Festival.

The trouble with so many multi-strand ensemble dramas in which the lives of various strangers intersect around a central theme is that the challenge of keeping all the narrative balls in the air leaves none of the characters or stories the breathing space to acquire much scope. That's partly the issue with writer-director Lone Scherfig's The Kindness of Strangers, a ponderous dollop of urban misery porn set in the margins of wintry Manhattan in which the warming emotional balm is quite literally built into the title. The capable actors do what they can, but audiences are more likely to glaze over than share the qualities of mercy and compassion so dutifully stitched into this diagrammatic patchwork.

Scherfig's script is earnest to a fault, but this is the kind of movie in which a sadistic, child-beating cop turns his icy gaze on a selfless candidate for sainthood he's just met and tells her: "I don't think you understand what love is. I don't think anybody loves you." Subtlety has no place here, least of all when the cop then out of nowhere pummels his deadbeat father's head in with a rotary telephone.

The central figure more or less pulling the strained mosaic together is Clara (Zoe Kazan), a young mother who has taken her two damaged sons (Jack Fulton, Finlay Wojtak-Hissong) and fled their home in Buffalo, New York. They head to New York City in a bid to escape the boys' abusive father Richard (Esben Smed), a handsome cop with a desktop full of torture images.

With no cash or credit, Clara is forced to shoplift clothing that will allow her to slip in unnoticed during a function at a Russian restaurant, where she stuffs her bag with appetizers to feed the kids. That opulent fairy tale venue, tellingly named The Winter Palace, serves as the hub where the story's various characters cross paths. It's owned by Timofey (Bill Nighy), whose Russian accent is as flimsy as his management qualifications, so on a whim he hires Marc (Tahar Rahim), newly released from prison for a crime he didn't commit, to run the joint.

Marc's only friend is his morally conflicted defense attorney John Peter (Jay Baruchel), who drags him along to a forgiveness therapy group organized by Alice (Andrea Riseborough), an ER nurse also involved in the homeless shelter and soup kitchen programs of a local church. Alice also happens to be a regular at the Winter Palace, where a jaunty folk band whips through a Russian-language version of "House of the Rising Sun" in a scene that seems lifted from an Aki Kaurismaki movie.

Finally, there's Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), a sweet but slow young man with a talent for losing jobs, a walking cliché who just needs to be needed. He responds to being fired from a mattress company at the start of the movie by hurling an office chair through a window. That chair then serves as another physical means of connecting the characters, notably Clara to John Peter, when she finally seeks legal recourse to protect the boys from Richard. The courtroom plotline is almost an afterthought, however, with more time spent on Marc's acts of generosity toward Clara and her sons, and his tentative romantic overtures to her.

Scherfig was far more successful at connecting the threads of disparate characters in a shared environment in her breakthrough 2000 romantic comedy Italian for Beginners, which was also the Danish filmmaker's last solo screenwriting effort. But emotional authenticity proves more elusive here, even with the ostensibly fail-safe material of traumatized children in physical danger. Everything feels mechanical, as if the writer-director had plotted the characters' interactions on a grid rather than taken pains to explore the complicated, messy ways that real people connect and respond to one another's needs.

Her chosen setting of Manhattan seems designed to underscore the fragility of success and well-being in a city defined to such a degree by wealth and achievement, but where the loss of employment, home, health insurance and all other standard measures of security can often be just a mishap or two away.

I wish I could say some of the performances pulled me in and made me care about the characters, but mostly, they register more as devices than people. Kazan conveys Clara's struggle to keep up a brave face for her sons while dealing with their limited options and her own growing desperation, particularly once her car is impounded and they really are on the street. But the angels placed so conveniently in her path by Scherfig's script undermine the pathos of her situation. Riseborough is stuck playing such a paragon of goodness that the character has no interesting edges. The only shift she gets to negotiate is into deepening sorrow and exhaustion, ultimately beseeching her quarrelsome therapy group by hammering out the movie's theme: "What gives you the right to be unkind?" And having Nighy play up his familiar mannerisms for humor just highlights the absence of a light touch anywhere in the writing.

The movie is shot with reasonable flair and agility, and scored with an emphasis on elegant string compositions. But as a supposed snapshot of life in the unaccommodating big city, and of the humane gestures that can soften that harshness, it feels utterly synthetic, not to mention a romantically "European" view of New York that's sheer nonsense.

Production companies: Creative Alliance, Strada Films
Cast: Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, Tahar Rahim, Caleb Landry Jones, Jay Baruchel, Bill Nighy, Jack Fulton, Finlay Wojtak-Hissong, Esben Smed
Director-screenwriter: Lone Scherfig
Producers: Malene Blenkov, Sandra Cunningham
Executive producers: Peter Watson, Marie-Gabrielle Stewart, Peter Touche, Andrea Scarso, Gavin Poolman, Mark Bellby, Thomas Gammeltoft, Peter Nadermann, Charles de Rosen, Tim Hegarty, Patrick Roy, Christina Kubacki, Bill Nighy, Dagur Kari, Ole Christian Madsen, Lone Scherfig
Director of photography: Sebastian Blenkov
Production designer: Carol Spier
Costume designer: Louize Nissen
Music: Andrew Lockington
Editor: Cam McLaughlin
Casting: Deirdre Bowen
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)

Sales: Hanway Films

115 minutes