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The Kindness of Strangers

Director - Lone Scherfig - 2019

"Mostly clean movie"
Clumsy tale of domestic abuse and homelessness set in New York and produced in Denmark opens the 69th Berlin International Film Festival


This is a Danish production, with input from various countries such as Canada and Sweden. Yet you’d never guess it. The film is entirely set in the US and there’s nothing Danish about it. Its identity it’s entirely American. The Danish director, which already has the Oscar-nominated An Education (2009) and the hilarious Dogme comedy Italian for Beginners (2000) under her belt, opted to shun European topics in favour of an all-American tearjerker. I find such international co-productions a bit awkward and devoid of identity, particularly when they are selected to open such a prestigious event. Her countryman Lars von Trier has also made several films set in the US (such as 2003’s Dogville and 2005’s Marderlay), yet – unlike The Kindness of Strangers – they have a very distinctive European flavour.

The lack of European identity (for a film presumably made with European money), however, isn’t the biggest problem with The Kindness of Strangers. This star-studded film is very clumsily put together. It follows Clara (Zoe Kazan) as she arrives in a very cold New York with her tow smalls sons on the backseat of her car. She has no money and no place to stay. She is fleeing a husband abusive towards her and her two children, and he detained her credit card. She has to fend for herself, apparently for the first time in her life. She is forced to sleep in her car, under a piano, in a local church and other places, always at the mercy of kind strangers, who are moved by her predicament.

Alice (Andrea Riseborough) is one of such strangers. The scrawny and pale female is the epitome of altruism. She’s a nurse during the day and helps strangers during the rest of her time. She runs a “forgiveness” class in the local church, and still finds time to serve food to homeless people. It’s never entirely clear how she manages to juggle all of this. An ex-con called Marc (Tahar Rahim) also lends a helping hand. He offers Clara comfort, affection and a place to sleep in the Winter Palace Russian restaurant where he works. His boss is the pseudo-Russian Timofey (Bill Nighy), a character that serves no function other than to include the name of the prestigious British actor in the film credits. There are a few more redundant characters

Overall, The Kindness of Strangers is not painful to watch. Its heart is at the right place, raising questions about domestic abuse and our lack of compassion towards homeless people. The top-drawer thespians help to sustain the narrative. The perennially frantic and sad-looking Kazan is particularly good, while Riseborough also delivers a satisfactory performance as the kindest of the kindest human beings on Earth. The problem is that the story is so disjointed and convoluted that it’s hardly credible and relatable. Clara survives for several days by shoplifting and stealing food from restaurants and incredibly never gets caught. One of her children has a very cumbersome accident that nearly kills him, and I’m not entirely sure how that could come to fruition.

Plus the characters are way too flat. There are no subtleties. Clara is plain sad. The husband (who eventually travels to New York attempting to track down his wife and children) is plain evil. And everyone else is plain good and kind. As a result, the dramatic scenes are just too contrived, and the dramatic elements are ineffective. This a feelgood tearjerker that won’t make you bawl your eyes out.

The Kindness of Strangers opens the 69th Berlin International Film Festival, which starts tonight.

"Mostly clean movie"

By Lone Scherfig - 07-02-2019

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