In the middle of the night, Clara (Zoe Kazan), a 30-ish housewife, creeps out of bed, wakes up her two young sons, Anthony (Jack Fulton) and Jude (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong), and, while her husband, Richard (Esben Smed), sleeps on unawares in their home in Buffalo, New York, drives away with the boys.
So begins The Kindness of Strangers, a movie that opened the Berlin Film Festival in 2019 and has now come to Netflix. From the opening close-up of an anxious Clara waking in the dark, it’s clear that we’re expected to sympathize with her.
To encourage our sympathy, the film equips Clara with a spouse who isn’t just neglectful or grouchy or adulterous; no, Richard is an insanely violent psychopath of the first water. He hasn’t just been knocking Clara about for years; he’s also been beating the hell out of his two little boys, and has even forced Anthony, who’s about 11, to beat up Jude, who’s about 8.
Why didn’t Clara leave this monster years earlier? She’s obviously a loving mother: how could she allow her sons to endure such terrible abuse? We never get a hint of an answer. But hey, a lot of young women, for a variety of psychological reasons, have trouble working up the nerve to leave horrible homes.
The only truly iniquitous creature in this picture is the policeman, Richard.
Still, given that Clara has waited so long, one has to assume she’s done at least a little Googling to explore her options. But no. She’s utterly clueless, it turns out, as to what an American wife and mother can do these days to escape an abusive husband. So instead of heading for a shelter where she and her sons can eat and sleep in safety and be put in touch with a lawyer, Clara drives to New York City, where she sleeps with her kids in her car, feeds them by crashing cocktail parties to steal hors d’oeuvres, and clothes them by stealing from high-end department stores.
Soon enough, she starts meeting various New Yorkers who help her out, even though they’re also down on their luck. Ducking into a church to get out of the cold, they encounter Alice (Andrea Riseborough), a lovelorn, burned-out emergency-room nurse and church volunteer who, after a one-minute conversation, sets up cots for them in her office. Later Marc (Tahar Rahim), who’s fresh out of a four-year prison term, lets them move into his apartment. Bafflingly, nobody in this film seems aware of the resources available to women in Clara’s position.
Plainly, The Kindness of Strangers is supposed to be a heartwarming story about lonely, hapless, good-hearted people who manage to find and help one another in the big, cold city. But that city, as presented here, is a fairy-tale version of the real thing. Perhaps this is because the film wasn’t made by New Yorkers, or even by Americans. Written and directed by Lone Scherfig, who is Danish, it’s a Canadian-Danish co-production, made with financing from the Swedish Film Institute, the Nordisk Film & TV Fond, etc., etc.
In his review of the film for the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney described it as having “a romantically ‘European’ view of New York that’s sheer nonsense.” Not exactly. The film presents New York as something out of the Wild West. If Scherfig didn’t set this story in Copenhagen — or Oslo or Stockholm — it’s because she and her intended audience of international bien-pensant types know very well that the Scandinavian welfare state would take good care of somebody in Clare’s situation.
But such people, however impressive their educational credentials, also genuinely think — and believe me, I’ve had this conversation with plenty of them — that America is such a heartless, sink-or-swim country that even facilities for battered women and children are unheard of.
So no, Scherfig’s picture of New York isn’t romantic. What she does view through a rosy lens are people, especially down-and-outs. In her world, one gathers, nobody’s ill fortune is ever the result of poor choices. For example, Clara and her sons meet a number of homeless people. Not one of them is a drug addict. None of them is remotely violent. They’re all just down on their luck.
As for Marc, the ex-con with a heart of gold, we learn that he was wrongly incarcerated, having taken the rap for his brother. Even Timofey (Bill Nighy), who owns the shady Russian restaurant at which Marc works, turns out not to be a member of the Russian Mafia — as one would reasonably expect in real life — but, in fact, a good-natured Brit who puts on the Russian accent for atmosphere.
No, the only truly iniquitous creature in this picture is the policeman, Richard, who, in addition to battering his wife and kids, ends up thrashing his own father to within an inch of his life. Scherfig’s film, then, though released three years ago, sends a message that fits perfectly into the present debased cultural moment that has seen the grotesque canonization of George Floyd and the indefensible demonization of cops. (READ MORE from Bruce Bawer: Oscars So Slight)
Then there’s Clara’s shoplifting, which the movie wants us to see as adorable. Even her son Anthony is morally alert enough to be appalled when she hands him a brand-new pair of Prada shoes. “I never steal from anyone that it won’t matter to,” she assures him. Yeah, the same excuse used by every smash-and-grab culprit whose predations, in the last year or two, have driven Rite Aids, Walgreens, and other chain stores out of business in the real Big Apple.
Notice to Readers: The American Spectator and Spectator World are marks used by independent publishing companies that are not affiliated in any way. If you are looking for The Spectator World please click on the following link: https://spectatorworld.com/.