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Berlinale Review

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

Lone Scherfig is cheerleader for a straightforward, universal, quasi-religious empathy

Savina Petkova on Lone Scherfig’s ‘The Kindness of Strangers‘ (2019)

Lone Scherfig’s saccharine new feature The Kindness of Strangers explores the depths that we discover within ourselves by tying together several misfortunate stories all based in New York City. The director’s natural sympathy for characters in crises is visible by the uncompromising treatment of coming-of-age (An Education), romantic relationships (One Day), and class politics (The Riot Club). By working predominantly with acclaimed actors, her investigation into self-discovery and the relationship with the other, this time around, makes her a social activist for a kinder, more aware world.

Clara (Zoe Kazan) takes her two sons away to escape a toxic husband (a terrifying Esben Smed), whom she feels imprisoned by. Her eyes tear up when she promises them this “vacation” they have embarked on will never end, as the film hints at a gruesome story of domestic violence. As the escapees head into the New York jungle, the film intertwines comic episodes of the embarrassed mother smuggling caviar canapés into her purse alongside the trio resorting to a soup kitchen beside the NYC homeless. The gradual building of Clara’s character does not render her simply stoic; there persists a fragility and shame to her subsequent decisions. Kazan’s excellent performance maintains ambivalence without parting too much detail of the character’s past, grounding a responsible and instinctive mother made of flesh and doubt.

Sharing the misfortunes of the same city, several kind strangers orbit around Clara’s journey. Alice (Andrea Riseborough) is a nurse with two other volunteer commitments, yet frustrated by not being able to help people in an indispensable. The fear of being unnoticed eats away at lawyer John Peter (Jay Baruchel) who brings his former client Marc (Tahar Rahim) into Alice’s support group. Having many characters integrated in a panoply of human struggles is a daunting task that Scherfig tackles masterfully. Presenting well-fleshed primary characters and quirky secondary ones (not least a comic Bill Nighy putting on a fake Russian accent as a restauranteur) to form a mosaic of complementary relationships almost makes it feel like everything in life fits perfectly. The film does not betray its humour even in the deepest of despairs, comparing Clara’s stolen designer dress, glasses, and coat to the attire of a spy. Yet, this offers too optimistic a reconciliation in an otherwise intense drama investigating the human condition. Films that make all-encompassing claims to resolve all social tensions face the opposite challenge: to be disregarded as a sugar-coated version of reality we enjoy watching on our laptops with cosy socks on, to provide a (nevertheless, delighted) sigh that “the world will be okay”.

Editor Cam McLauchlin, who also worked on Del Toro’s masterpiece fairytale The Shape of Water (2017), conjures the magic that keeps the story flowing freely from one story to another. The film excels in its editing, as the jump between individual stories relies on a mood that demands elaboration – it this way the characters take on each other’s emotions and consequently amplify or juxtapose them. On the material level, this approach does not work as well. A chair, thrown out in a rage by one of the characters, becomes the symbol of “win some, lose some”, and the art of letting go, when it ends up at John Peter’s law office. Tiptoeing around such cliches, The Kindness of Strangers manages to avoid them close enough to suggest it could be the Love Actually (2003) for Mother’s Day.

A film about the struggle to articulate oneself and one’s own desires, The Kindness of Strangers dips its fingers in a mixture of pain, laughter, and forgiveness. Domestic violence, bullying, intolerance, racism, and sexism are the main enemies of society, which Scherfig tackles by appealing to a universal notion of togetherness. Bearing in mind that the biggest (and scariest) step outside of oneself is to approach another person (hence why the first talk, the first kiss or first sexual act are considered terrifying beforehand), here lies the strongest feature of the film. Take the title quite literally: Kindness of Strangers, meaning that this film is a cheerleader for a straightforward, universal, quasi-religious empathy.

Premiered as part of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.