Berlinale first look: The Kindness of Strangers is a misty-eyed Manhattan McFlurry

Lone Scherfig’s hokey fairy tale delivers Zoe Kazan’s runaway family into an entirely spurious New York.

Jessica Kiang

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Zoe Kazan as Clara and Tahar Rahim as Marc in The Kindness of Strangers

Zoe Kazan as Clara and Tahar Rahim as Marc in The Kindness of Strangers

Unlike the deep irony summoned by Blanche Dubois’ famous last words, Lone Scherfig’s namesake film The Kindness of Strangers is actually about strangers being kind to each other. It represents such a literal reading of that evocative phrase it may constitute some sort of crime against the estate of Tennessee Williams. But in A Streetcar Named Desire the declaration is made in the throes of breakdown, as Blanche is being carted off to an institution. So maybe the title works – just realise that this garbled, googly-eyed melodrama, in which lost souls get found and broken people get fixed in a magical kingdom called Manhattan, has an equally tenuous relationship with reality.

“Manhattan!” breathes Clara (Zoe Kazan) as she points at a skyscraper, her eyes shining, her hopeful smile so megawatt it threatens to pop like a lightbulb. Her two young sons, whom she has smuggled out of the reach of their abusive father, duly goggle up at the skyline, unaware that for all the wonders New York City has in store for them (hors d’oeuvres! Frozen fountains! Famous kid-magnet the New York Public Library!) there will be just as many terrors (hunger! Homelessness! Hypothermia!).

Also struggling on the city’s mean streets, or rather in its dilapidated but chandelier-laden restaurants and alleyways with perfect acoustics from nearby concert halls, is Marc (Tahar Rahim), a raffish ex-con with an unplaceable accent. Celebrating his release with rumpled lawyer John Peter (Jay Baruchel), Marc ends up charming a job out of Timofey (Bill Nighy), the eccentric owner of a once-grand Russian restaurant, who also gargles a dubious accent.

Rahim with Bill Nighy as Timofey

Rahim with Bill Nighy as Timofey

Elsewhere – though never very far away, because this is one of those interconnected-stories films in which huge metropolises appear to have one restaurant, one church and one hospital, through which the entire population of roughly one dozen citizens move in finite permutations – there’s hard-luck case Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones). An idiot savant without the savant part, he is evicted and runs into saintly, selfless, solitary Alice (Andrea Riseborough), a tireless caregiver given to sobbing in linen closets when no one’s watching. “I’m no one’s numero uno” she sighs. “Is that Italian?” queries Jeff. “Yes” replies Alice – an exchange as bizarre and redundant as Jeff himself, whom we’ve already watched being fired twice, most recently for mistaking a dog for laundry. Classic Jeff!

In Sebastian Blenkov’s amiable photography, while Andrew Lockington’s soft-whip music swirls around them creamily like a melodramatic McFlurry, these improbable characters weave through one another’s lives in maddeningly coincidental, sometimes unintentionally amusing ways which are neither magical nor realistic enough to earn the term ‘magical realism’. Instead we get enough engineered contrivance to keep all five fans of Dan Fogelman’s recent misfortune Life Itself happy, and the rest of us clutching at straws, like Kazan’s preternaturally appealing performance, to stay afloat.

The Kindness of Strangers (2019)

Motifs don’t so much recur as galumph back on stage with the unobtrusive subtlety of a hippo in the Bolshoi corps. Themes are writ large and painstakingly repeated. Oh, and a side character gets half-beaten to death with a telephone which, in a film as mild, chaste and drippingly nice as this one, feels sort of mean-funny, like watching a nerd have a coughing fit trying to impress the tough kids by smoking a cigarette.

Scherfig’s last film Their Finest was a gem that effortlessly generated the exact romantic and adventurous magic that is curiously absent from her sanitised, frictionless, apolitical imagining of contemporary New York. It’s curious because the thing about Manhattan is, it is magic. Amazing things can and do happen there, and when they do, we marvel at how sometimes our lives can feel like a movie. Just not this movie.

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