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Review: The Kindness of Strangers Is a Fuzzy Portrait of Intersecting Lives

The film’s repetitive and lifeless dialogue robs otherwise charismatic performers of distinguishing characteristics.

1.5
The Kindness of Strangers
Photo: Entertainment One

The opening night film at this year’s Berlinale, The Kindness of Strangers, seems to be writer-director Lone Scherfig’s attempt to synthesize the style and tone of her 2001 breakout film, the Dogme 95 comedy Italian for Beginners, with that of her more recent work, namely such polished melodramas as An Education and Their Finest. But The Kindness of Strangers is less artful composite than awkward amalgam—a film undecided about whether it’s aiming to pluck heartstrings or elicit laughs, and which ends up doing little of either.

Like Italian for Beginners, The Kindness of Strangers parallels the stories of multiple characters, who share certain spaces—in this case, a hospital, a church, and a Russian restaurant—and whose paths eventually converge. But instead of small-town Denmark, all of these individuals find themselves stumbling in and out of each other’s stories in Manhattan. The film bounces back and forth between the lives of Clara (Zoe Kazan), a young mother who just escaped an abusive husband with her young sons in the dead of night; Alice (Andrea Riseborough), an inveterate do-gooder who works as a nurse, the head of a soup kitchen, and a support group leader; Marc (Tahar Rahim), an ex-convict who just took over management of a local restaurant; and Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), who can’t hold a job because he’s literally bad at everything. All of them, but especially the perpetually desperate Clara, will eventually find some kind of help from the others, but especially the perpetually self-abnegating Alice.

This kind of parallelism was one of the strengths of Italian for Beginners, which treated its small-minded, provincial characters with a hefty dose of irony but was ultimately humanistic in its celebration of communal life. Here, there’s precious little irony on display. Certainly, the film dares not risk making either Clara’s plight nor Alice’s charitability ridiculous. But other characters are sometimes mocked, though the humor is more silly than ironic. For one, the otherwise normally functioning Jeff is so bad at his commercial laundry job that he confuses a Maltese dog for a white sheet—a joke that, in retrospect, feels weird given the traumatic direction Jeff’s life goes in, as he loses his job and nearly dies of hypothermia.

Visually, too, The Kindness of Strangers is an unsuccessful hybrid of the loose, craftlike assemblage of Italian for Beginners and the cleaner Hollywood mode Scherfig has been working in of late. A neat, cleanly photographed sequence of Clara’s youngest son, Jude (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong), silently contemplating icicles in the church’s garden makes for an awkward bedmate with other exterior shots that are frequently, inexplicably, out of focus. And the film’s brief, pointed scenes, with their purposely modest scale and structure, don’t effectively convey the big emotions the story tries to evoke.

In addition to its tonal about-faces, the repetitive and lifeless dialogue of the screenplay also robs otherwise charismatic performers like Kazan and Jones of distinguishing characteristics. We sit through many scenes in which a teary-eyed Clara, visibly upset but in unbroken, declarative sentences, explains why she left her husband. The effect is that the film often sounds like a table read, its characters and major arcs feeling half-sketched. The film’s utterly unconvincing central romance climaxes with the limp line: “I like this place…and I like you.”

Perhaps the conceit here is that the film is about “ordinary” people experiencing various kinds of personal misfortune, and thus their speech should be direct and unpretentious.
But The Kindness of Strangers lacks the observed detail that might have lent its characters life and believability. And that also applies to the scenarios that Scherfig constructs, as they’re defined by a curious lack of specificity. In this world drawn by the dictates of dramatic convenience, civil suits can send people to prison, 12-hour shifts are an aberration in the life of an American nurse, and instead of delivering concrete diagnoses, doctors inform you that “your son’s not dead, there’s a chance he’ll still pull through” and leave it at that.

One of the few well-defined pockets of Scherfig’s version of New York City is Alice’s support group, Forgiveness, which Marc and his lawyer, John Peter (Jay Baruchel), attend together. Like so many aspects of The Kindness of Strangers, the specifics of this support group are left vague; it appears the group is more interested in griping about others than fostering any real sense of forgiveness, and Alice herself can be rather castigating for a support group leader. But the neurotic characters who gather at the support group can be funny, and are distinguishable by nuances of speech and behavior. One wishes Scherfig had applied her ability to lucidly manage these hectic, multi-voiced interactions elsewhere in the film as well.

Cast: Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, Tahar Rahim, Caleb Landry Jones, Bill Nighy, Jay Baruchel Director: Lone Scherfig Screenwriter: Lone Scherfig Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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