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Denmark/Canada/Sweden/France 2019
Directed by
Lone Scherfig
112 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1 stars

The Kindness Of Strangers

If Danish writer/director Lone Scherfig had been Dr Frankenstein The Kindness of Stranger would have been her Creature – an unlovely and unloved thing stitched together from the body parts left behind by long-departed souls.  

Given that Scherfig who started her career as part of the Dogme 95 group has a very respectable C.V. both as a writer and a director including two highly recommendable films, the WWII dramedy Their Finest (2016) and the 2009 film that made a star of Carey Mulligan, An Education (it remains Mulligan's best work) exactly why, short of the film being a huge joke, The Kindness Of Strangers is so completely wrong-headed.

It starts off looking like an indie comedy with Clara (Zoe Kazan) bundling up her two boys and heading under the cover of night from Buffalo to Manhattan which is home to Alice (Andrea Riseborough) a stressed-out nurse who also volunteers in a soup kitchen and chairs a support group for people suffering from a want of kindness or some such. Is this, one wonders, some kind of social issue film? Clara starts gate-crashing cocktail parties in order to steal food to supplement what she scavenges from bins. This inspires her to steal better clothes so that she can attend better parties, marvellously turned out out in Prada.

Alice is a regular at a failing Russian “Imperial”-style restaurant owned by Timofey (Bill Nighy) where an (innocent) ex-con Marc (Tahar Rahim) and his lawyer John Peter (Jay Baruchel) are dining.  Timofey employs Marc to manage the restaurant. John-Peter attends Alice’s therapy group with Marc keeping him company. Meanwhile Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), a volatile dim-wit, becomes an accidental helper at Alice’s soup kitchen.

At about the thirty minute mark the film cuts to a close up of Clara and her boys squatting in their car. The camera pulls out and up to show Mark taking a reflective smoke at a window above them. Andrew Lockington’s music swells and we realize that we are both in the land of the Big Cliché and that Scherfig’s agenda was to give us a film along the lines of Babel (2006) and Crash (2004), one that captured the contingency and inter-connectedness of human life. There is, however, a sizeable problem here: both Iñárritu’s and Haggis’s film created believable filmic equivalents for our real world experience. Scherfig’s attempt is a contrived and schmaltzy simulacrum that looks like more like an attempt to do a reverse Flying High by taking cliches and re-investing them with life - the sound of the failure to do so is palpable. Indeed it is as if over the course of the film the audio grew gradually out of sync with the video, eventually entirely disconnecting. 

It’s not just that the plot is uninspired and over-dependant on contrivance and co-incidence but the tone slides about from social issue film to rom-com, melodrama to spoof with no apparent direction, both literally and metaphorically. Even if the casting is entirely wrong, the toll on the acting is excruciating. The worst affected is Rahim who inexplicably goes the entire film trying to project tough guy savvy and failing risibly. Kazan, who has the misfortune to look like the Munchian Scream! mask when she tears up, was very good as Miss Longabaugh in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) but here she's not remotely credible as a homeless woman with two young children fleeing domestic abuse. Scherfig even stumps Bill Nighy who in one scene in the absence of any lines, has to wince for what seems like forever after being scolded by Marc. As for Riseborough, one goes the entire film waiting for her to emerge from her shell.

It is pointless to go on about the many faults of The Kindness of Strangers. It may not qualify for the Ed Wood so-bad-it's-good award but then that’s just another of its faults. It does however offer the perverse viewer the relatively rare sight of a film in which, despite the talent and accumulated experience involved, gets EVERYTHING so wrong.




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