With “The Kindness of Strangers,” a modern-day fairy-tale set in an age of political and social turmoil, Danish writer-director Lone Scherfig is delivering a love letter to the city that never sleeps.
The film, which opens the Berlin Film Festival on Thursday, centers on several characters who cross paths in a New York restaurant. There’s Clara (Zoe Kazan), a mother looking to avoid her abusive cop husband; Alice (Andrea Riseborough), a shy ER nurse who has found her calling running an eclectic therapy group; Marc (Tahar Rahim), an ex-con-turned-manager of the restaurant; Jeff (Landry Jones), a young man in desperate need of a job; John Peter (Jay Baruchel), a lawyer with high ethics but low self-esteem; and Timofey (Bill Nighy), the owner of the restaurant and the grandson of Russian immigrants.
Scherfig, who received an Oscar nomination for “An Education,” said the genesis of the project was her desire to make a film about people who represent contemporary worries, who don’t know each other, but who end up bonding in dramatic situations and inch towards a happy ending. The film is first and foremost “a love story not just between a man and a woman, but between friends, a mother and her sons, a boss and his employee,” she told Variety in an exclusive interview. “And it’s also a film about being loved by strangers.”
As its title suggests, the movie is also about charity, and, since the backdrop plays an important part in the story, more precisely about charity in the U.S. “I have found that there is a strong sense of charity in America, especially in New York City. It’s incredible how much people are willing to reach out to others, even complete strangers,” Scherfig said, calling it a “personal charity which is not political, as in Scandinavia, where people help others by paying taxes.”
The film is not meant to be political but could be perceived that way, Scherfig said, because it depicts people on the margins. “I’m showing people who are struggling to survive, living paycheck to paycheck and falling off the cliff,” she said, adding that, ultimately, the film’s characters are “not politicized or even particularly heroic characters; they never discuss the film’s underlying theme but are portrayed from an emotional perspective.”
New York seemed the only possible location for the disparate settings she wanted to depict. “I wanted to show it all: the glamorous Fifth Avenue, luxurious restaurants, the soup kitchen, the emergency room and the drama going on inside.” At the same time, it was the perfect place to assemble an international cast of characters, played by American and European actors, including Rahim, who is French; Kazan, who is American; and Riseborough and Nighy, who are British.
“I’m very dependent on well-prepared actors. I’ve been working with very many over the years, sometimes people I haven’t even cast when doing TV. I try to find a place where their interpretation of the character lands well so there is space for detail,” Scherfig said. “I try to find actors who are making choices that I like, interpreting the script from the character’s point of view and adding elements I wouldn’t have asked for.”
She compared “The Kindness of Strangers” to her earlier film “Italian for Beginners,” which won Berlin’s Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear in 2001. “The construction has similarities, the comedy-drama hybrid, and some of the characters seem like remote cousins,” Scherfig said, adding that “Italian for Beginners” was nevertheless a “dogma film and ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ is done with a more grand, expressive film language and with more thematic urgency.”
“The Kindness of Strangers” marks Scherfig’s follow-up to the U.K. romantic drama “Their Finest,” which won the award for best film at the Goteborg Film Festival and was nominated for two BAFTAs. “The Kindness of Strangers” is represented in international markets by HanWay Films and is backed by Ingenious Media and Apollo Media. Entertainment One will distribute the movie in Canada and SF Studios in Scandinavia.
Scherfig said that Berlin was a special place for her, as she’s previously shown two of her most successful films there: “Italian for Beginners” which took four awards, and “An Education.” The latter, a 1960s-set coming-of age drama with Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard, earned three Oscar nominations and a BAFTA award for Mulligan.
Scherfig said she was particularly proud that her film would be opening the last Berlinale edition under the leadership of Dieter Kosslick, who is stepping down as the festival’s director. “It’s a milestone edition so I’m really looking forward to presenting the film there,” she said.