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Berlinale 2019: The Kindness of Strangers

Reviewed by Simon Ramshaw.

Director Lone Scherfig
Length 112 mins
Rating ***-------
Filmmaking: 2  Personal enjoyment: 1

Photo from the article There’s something very telling that Lone Scherfig’s The Kindness of Strangers was chosen as the opening film for Berlinale 2019. It’s a film with everything you need to know about it in the title, so it’s likely to be a safe bet for the many audience members dipping their toes into the festival experience. It has a decidedly mainstream appeal, designed to warm the cockles of your heart with its very title, and to construct an uplifting narrative that leaves you with a spring in your step. The problem with The Kindness of Strangers, though, is that it’s all construction; it completely reverse-engineers each plot point around its title, but with precious little genuine truth to tie each disparate narrative thread together.

The film’s brief logline is simple, but sets out its genre trappings very clearly: “The story of four people suffering through the worst crises of their lives.” Anybody having flashbacks to ensemble dramas like Magnolia (1999) or Crash (2004) would be on the right track, as this is indeed a piece that follows suit by setting a number of characters from different backgrounds on parallel emotional and physical trajectories. The film’s main thread follows Zoe Kazan’s Clara, a young mother who flees her small-town life with her two sons to the Big Apple in order to escape her abusive husband. There’s a rather cruel twist in this though: Clara’s husband is a cop, which makes going to the authorities a bit of a problem. As she descends into despair, a bunch of other characters converge around her life, including (but not limited to) Andrea Riseborough’s generous nurse/support worker Alice, and Tahar Rahim’s kind restaurant chef Marc.

Clara’s situation is an impossible one, and thus one that the film finds painfully difficult to deal with in any authentic way. Her journey is one of abject misery, which results in the story’s thematic scope frequently turning towards homelessness and the struggles of single motherhood. This would be all well and good if the film didn’t seem so hellbent on rifling through a huge box of spiky narrative contrivances to punish her with. Zoe Kazan puts in some serious emotional overtime, but it’s not enough to raise this stolid melodrama out of its stodgy sentimental indulgences. The movie does Clara a serious disservice by offering her a lifeline that not only doesn’t make any technological sense, but opens up a new thematic chapter (police brutality, of all things) that it treats as a straightforward plot device. From that point, the film uses the eponymous kindness of strangers as a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card, which makes for a tiresome and repetitive viewing experience, devoid of any real emotional pull. There is perhaps the germ of an interesting idea about white privilege in a peculiar movement where Clara feeds her children with stolen hors d’oeuvres, but the film is otherwise so tone deaf that I’m not entirely sure it’s intentional.

There’s not much left to enjoy when the plot is so self-consciously miserable, but there are bright sparks to be found in the film’s odd (if frequently misjudged) idiosyncrasies. One particular plot kicks into action with a desk chair that becomes a recurring motif, and the sound of a concert hall becomes an eye-rolling sentimental metaphor for distracting yourself from life’s troubles. And then there’s Bill Nighy, who doesn’t so much chew scenery as nibble it in a bizarre performance as Rahim’s accent-hopping maître-d. Nighy is credited as one of the film’s executive producers, so of course he gets all the best lines. The only issue is that he’s from a totally different movie, not only down to his character’s overtly comic nature, but also to Nighy’s unique acting register. He’s operating only one or two notches below his enjoyably preposterous performance as Davy Jones, which is a creative decision too bizarre not to slightly enjoy.

It’s a shame that Nighy is the highlight of the film when there ought to be a lot more to love about it. As a work, it lays out its wares very clearly and offers little deviation from what you would expect, which would be fine if, at the very least, it found some deft way of tugging at your heartstrings. Instead, the increasingly absurd narrative twists and turns never ring true, which renders The Kindness of Strangers a nice gesture, but little more than simply that - a gesture - and a rather empty one, it must be said.

This review was published on February 08, 2019.

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