Berlinale 2019: Lone Scherfig’s The Kindness of Strangers is well-intentioned but lacks authenticity

Prathap Nair

Feb 08, 2019 17:47:46 IST

The Kindness of Strangers had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival on 7 February, 2019. The festival runs from 7 to 17 February.

“Kill your darlings,” remarked William Faulkner once, reportedly advising detachment from one’s own characters. Lone Scherfig’s The Kindness of Strangers is a textbook example of what happens when a director loves her characters too much. The result is a script filled with characters that are refused an opportunity for natural progression and hence acquire robotic stiffness.

Berlinale’s opening film is an urban poverty drama set in wintry Manhattan, featuring a runaway mother (Zoe Kazan) of two boys Anthony (Jack Fulton) and Jude (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong). She's running from an abusive relationship and the film also scopes the kind strangers she meets who help her back to her feet. Penniless and fleeing her husband with children in tow, Clara steals Hors d'oeuvres to feed them, shoplifts expensive clothes and clutches to dress up so she can steal at a fancy Russian restaurant.

A still from The Kindness of Strangers.

Freshly rendered homeless, the movie follows Clara and her children navigating the harshness of the city where her misery finds company in the comfort of other strangers, with problems of their own. The more misery Clara finds herself in, the more help she receives from these strangers. That’s perhaps the kindness of Scherfig’s script, which conveniently attempts to flatten each hurdle by sending help to Clara, just so it can stick with the theme. In effect, this trick gets real old real fast.

Kazan attempts to render some credibility to her role with her commanding screen presence and by putting in an earnest performance. It also bears mention that she barely looks like a mother of two, but like a girl out of college.

It would be remiss to not mention Andrea Riseborough who plays the cloyingly good-natured ER nurse Alice and her contribution to the film. Though undercut by an inconsistent story-line and predictable plot points that conveniently propel the narrative, she brings a semblance of authenticity to the movie. In fact, in some ways Riseborough’s Alice is better written even than Kazan’s Clara.

Far-fetched altruism is a running theme in the movie. The impeccably well put-together, just-out-of-prison ex-con Marc, played by Tahar Rahim, is so casual it appears he is stupefied by his role, gets hired without so much of an interview by the sagely restaurateur Timofey - Bill Nighy - whose self-deprecating humor provides momentary comic relief. Clara and her sons get taken in by Marc by their second meeting.

Scherfig’s film will make you believe that New York is filled with do-gooders like these, who, at the drop of a hat, will risk their jobs and lives to get involved with an imperiled stranger. Also, according to The Kindness of Strangers, New York is where shoplifting is so easy you could walk away with a dress with its price tag intact without even setting a security sensor off or flee without falling within the vision of the omnipresent security cameras. Even barring the niggling lack of details, the movie fails to evoke sympathy to its characters, stuck as they are in their lives with little scope of redemption.

That said, the movie does have its moments. There are glimpses of potential when a homeless man confronts Clara for smugly looking down on him, despite the fact that they’re both on the streets with nowhere to go. But these class divisions are never explored so those promising scenes remain few and far between.

Exasperatingly, the movie attributes flimsy backstories to its characters. For instance, the abusive husband remains an unconvincing narrative trope because Esben Smed Jensen, who plays the role, comes across as a likeable father, except in the one scene in which he assaults his own father, a scene that seems deliberately plugged in.

Andrew Lockington’s ambitious score seems to want to lift the film from wallowing in its own pathos but ends up standing alone as another misfit, ironically, in the film about misfits. Sebastian Blenkov’s camera captures New York’s glorious winter but fails to capture the city’s essence and hence ends up with a collection of beautiful shots about the city.

Though blessed with earnest portrayal by its actors, in the absence of a solid narrative and somewhat inauthentic portrayal of the big apple, the kindness Scherfig’s characters afford to strangers is simply a ball lost in the weeds.

Updated Date: Feb 08, 2019 17:47:46 IST