Review: ‘Sometimes Always Never,’ starring Bill Nighy, Sam Riley, Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerny and Alice Lowe

June 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sam Riley and Bill Nighy in “Sometimes Always Never” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Sometimes Always Never”

Directed by Carl Hunter

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed cities in England, the comedy drama “Sometimes Always Never” has almost all white cast (with one biracial/black character) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A tailor and his adult son have emotional tensions with each other, stemming from the childhood disappearance of the tailor’s other son.

Culture Audience: “Sometimes Always Never” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Bill Nighy and dry British humor.

Jenny McGutter and Tim McInnerny in “Sometimes Always Never” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

Bill Nighy tends to play a lot of characters with a droll sense of humor, so the dark comedy/drama “Sometimes Always Never” is right up his alley. This quirky film, which takes place in suburban England, won’t appeal to everyone, but viewers who enjoy “Sometimes Always Never” will probably like the film more for the actors’ performances than for the movie’s somewhat thin plot.

Directed by Carl Hunter and written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, “Sometimes Always Never” focuses mainly on the tension-filled relationship between a widowed tailor named Alan Mellor (played by Nighy) and his son Peter (played by Sam Riley), who can’t go a day together without bickering with each other. The reason they don’t seem to particularly get along is because years ago, when Peter was a boy, his brother Michael disappeared after storming out of their home during an argument while Michael was playing Scrabble with Peter and Alan. Michael has remained missing all these years later.

The mystery of Michael’s disappearance has affected both men in different ways, even though they both have similar unspoken resentment and guilt over the disappearance. Alan thinks Michael might still be alive, while Peter is convinced that Michael is probably dead.

Alan has become obsessed with Scrabble and finds any way he can to conjure up theories that he can somehow find Michael again by playing Scrabble. He plays Scrabble online and tells Peter about on online rapport he’s developed with a Scrabble gamer who goes by the name Skinny Thesaurus. Peter says he hates Scrabble and expresses his distaste over Alan’s far-fetched theories and continued obsession with this word game.

Alan is so stuck in the past over Michael’s disappearance that he still hands out a missing-person photo of Michael to strangers, even though the photo is of Michael as a child. It’s one of the first things that viewers see Alan doing in the movie’s opening scene, which takes place at an almost deserted beach.

Peter meets Alan at the beach to pick him up in his car, so they can go on a solemn journey together. The reason for this out-of-town trip? A body has been found that could be Michael. Alan and Peter have to travel to the morgue to identify the body.

During the trip, the father and son trade verbal barbs at each other, including their ongoing debates about synonyms and what words can legitimately be used in a Scrabble game. Peter is impatient about this trip and tells Alan that he’s got to go back as soon as possible to his wife, Sue (played by Alice Lowe), who’s a chemical scientist. Alan says to Peter, “I’m sure I’m going deaf. I don’t hear half of what you say.”

When Alan and Peter check into their hotel, the bickering continues. In the hotel lounge, they meet a married couple named Arthur (played by Tim McInnerny) and Margaret (played by Jenny Agutter) and make some small talk. The conversation inevitably turns to Scrabble, and it isn’t long before Alan, Margaret and Arthur start playing Scrabble together in the lounge, while Peter has left to go to his hotel room.

While Arthur takes a restroom break, Margaret confides in Alan that her husband used to be a singer who would record albums of cover songs for record companies looking to cash in on hits that were popular at the time. One of the cover songs he recorded is Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache,” which is heard later in the story. Margaret also tells Alan that the reason why she and Arthur are in town is because they have to identify the body of their son who went missing when he was a child.

During the Scrabble game, Alan doesn’t tell Margaret and Arthur that he’s in town for the same reason. Arthur and Margaret find out the next day when they see Alan and Peter at the morgue at the same time. (It’s revealed in the movie if the child at the morgue is from either family.)

Peter gets very upset when he finds out that Alan was a fierce competitor with Arthur during the Scrabble game, and Alan ended up winning £200 from Arthur. Peter offers to pay back the money to Arthur and Margaret, but they politely decline. Peter scolds Alan for taking advantage of the couple, knowing that they are going through the same trauma of identifying the body. Alan just shrugs and says that he couldn’t help himself.

During the trip, Alan stays with Peter and his family, which includes Peter and Susie’s teenage son Jack (played by Louis Healy), a loner who spends most of his free time playing online video games. When Alan tells Peter that he’s concerned about Jack spending so much time on the computer, Peter replies: “Why would that be a worry? He’s at home. He’s not on the streets. He hasn’t gone missing.” Ouch.

As the story unfolds, there are other things that Peter brings up from the past when he argues with Alan. Peter hated that Alan had a habit of giving Peter cheap toys and games that were knock-offs of the originals. And because Peter’s mother died when he was a child (it isn’t specified when she passed away), Peter still feels resentment that he was raised by a father who focused a lot of energy on finding Michael.

There’s a minor subplot of the dynamics between Jack and his adult relatives. Jack and Alan form somewhat of a kinship when Alan becomes fascinated with Jack’s online computer games. Meanwhile, Sue has a habit of embarrassing Jack at bus stops, where he meticulously plans to be at the same time as a teenage girl named Rachel (played by Ella-Grace Gregoire), whom Jack has had a crush on for a while.

As for the movie’s title of “Sometimes Always Never,” that comes from a scene in the film where Alan is showing Jack some tailoring tips for suits. Alan tells Jack that when it comes to a suit jacket’s first three buttons, the first one should “sometimes” be buttoned, the second one should “always” be button, and the third should “never” be buttoned.

Alan has his own tailor shop (called Mellors Tailors) but the movie shows him doing very little work in his chosen profession. There’s that grandfather-grandson scene with Alan and Jack. And there’s another scene where Alan is shown alone at the shop, as if business is slow. Alan’s line of work actually isn’t that necessary for the plot, and the only real purpose is seemingly because the button advice he gave Jack ended up being used as the movie’s title.

There’s a scene in the movie where Alan, Sue, Jack and Rachel are playing a Scrabble board game together. Peter is watching nearby. Alan questions Sue’s use of a scientific word, while Peter tells Alan not to question his wife’s scientific knowledge. Alan persists anyway and looks up the validity of the word in a dictionary. Peter explodes with anger.

It’s clear that what Peter is angry about is really not about Alan questioning Sue’s word knowledge but about feeling like an outsider in his own household. And perhaps there’s some jealousy that Alan is forming a closer bond to Jack than Peter even had with Alan. And things get even more tense when Alan becomes convinced that an anonymous online Scrabble gamer is really the missing Michael who’s sending clues about his whereabouts.

“Sometimes Always Never” frequently uses a technique of having a particular word and its definition shown before each of the movie’s three acts. The movie has the look and feel of a stage play, not just because there’s a small number of people in the cast but also because of the lo-fi production design by Tim Dickel and art direction by Guto Humphreys. (The driving scenes in the car were obviously done in front of a green or blue screen.)

The visual look of the movie (from cinematographer Richard Stoddard) is kind modern yet retro, with copious use of low lighting for the interior scenes. Almost all of the buildings in the film have interior walls painted green, blue and red. These bright colors for walls in houses or a hotel are not very common for suburban England. It seems as if the filmmakers wanted to give the impression that this is a more whimsical England, compared to what’s normally seen in movies.

Although the acting from Nighy and Riley is very good, and the movie does a convincing flipping of traditional parent-child roles (Alan is impulsive and slightly rebellious, while Peter is more cautious and scolding), “Sometimes Always Never” has pacing that’s a little too sluggish at times. People will enjoy this movie best if they’ve got about 90 minutes to spare and aren’t expecting a lot of fast-paced action, loads of suspense or obvious jokes.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Sometimes Always Never” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on June 12, 2020. The film’s U.S. digital and VOD release is on July 10, 2020. “Sometimes Always Never” was originally released in the United Kingdom and several other countries in 2019.

Review: ‘Hope Gap,’ starring Annette Bening, Bill Nighy and Josh O’Connor

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bill Nighy and Annette Bening in "Hope Gap"
Bill Nighy and Annette Bening in “Hope Gap” (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

“Hope Gap” 

Directed by William Nicholson

Culture Representation: Taking place in London and Seaford, England, the emotionally intense drama “Hope Gap” is about a middle-class white family affected by a painful divorce; the estranged couple’s son confides in two friends who are people of color.

Culture Clash: The former couple are at odds because the husband wants the divorce but the wife doesn’t.

Culture Audience: “Hope Gap” will appeal primarily to fans of arthouse cinema who want to see a well-written, well-acted story about the harsh realities of divorce and the effects that divorce can have on an adult child.

Josh O’Connor and Bill Nighy in “Hope Gap” (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

The divorce drama “Hope Gap” begins with gorgeous, sweeping aerial shots of Seaford, a small Sussex city on the South Coast of England. As the camera takes in the picturesque views of the cliffsides and grassy knolls, the movie’s narrator, Jamie Axton (played by Josh O’Connor), reminisces of a simpler time in his childhood. One of his favorite childhood activities was exploring in a cove called Hope Gap, located underneath the cliffs, as his mother would wait nearby on the rocks.

As viewers soon learn, Jamie’s nostalgic memories of Hope Gap are what he’ll have to cling to when he thinks of happier times in his parents’ marriage. And who are his parents? Jamie’s mother Grace Axton (played by Annette Benning) is retired, and Jamie’s father Edward Axton (played by Bill Nighy) is a history teacher at a local high school. Grace and Edward still live in their family home (a cozy Tudor house) in Seaford. Jamie, who’s in his mid-to-late-20s, is their only child, and he lives alone in a small London apartment.

Grace and Edward’s home might look comfortable, but the emotional atmosphere is filled with turmoil. The couple will soon be celebrating their 29th wedding anniversary, and Grace is annoyed that Edward doesn’t really seem to care. She nitpicks over little things—Edward’s hobby of updating Wikipedia articles, how he gets a cup of tea—and the more she nags and prods, the more he seems to shut down emotionally. She’s also angry that Edwards doesn’t want to give any input for any plans she might have to celebrate their anniversary.

It’s obvious that Grace wants Edward’s romantic attention, and she’s practically begging him to say all the right things to her. But Edward seems to be paralyzed with not knowing if he can say the right thing, because Grace criticizes so much of what he does. Grace’s constant berating makes him thing that he can never do anything right with her. As irritated as Grace seems to be with Edward, she speaks lovingly of Jamie. She tells Edward how much she misses Jamie and how she wishes he would visit more.

It isn’t long before Jamie comes to visit from London. Grace immediately starts in on Jamie about his love life. He’s single and dating, but not in a serious relationship. Grace says she wants him to settle down and get married, and she worries about him living alone. Jamie tells her that he’s comfortable living by himself,  and he doesn’t seem to be in a rush to get married and have kids.

Meanwhile, Grace (who’s a very religious Christian and very opiniated) expresses disappointment when Jamie tells her that he’s become an atheist. She tries to enlist Edward in her debate with Jamie about religion, but Edward refuses to take sides. Edward tells Grace that religion isn’t a fact; it’s a belief.

Grace gets even angrier when she and Edward have a tense conversation alone together. Sahe badgers him to tell her what will make him happier. He doesn’t really have an answer for her. He just wants to be left alone. The argument escalates when Grace asks Edward to tell her that he loves her, but he refuses. She gets so upset that she slaps him and turns over the kitchen table in a rage.

All the signs are there that Edward has emotionally checked out of their marriage. However, it still comes as a shock to Jamie the next morning when he finds out that Edward is going to leave Grace that day. Jamie gets the news when Grace has gone to church, and he and Edward are alone together.

Edward tells Jamie that he’s going to leave Grace because he’s fallen in love with another woman, they’ve been having an affair for about a year, and he’s going to move in with her. His mistress’ name is Angela (played by Sally Rogers), and she’s the mother of one of his students. Edward plans to the tell Grace this devastating news when she gets home from church, and Edward doesn’t want Grace to be alone in the next few days after Edward leaves her.

It’s then that Jamie realizes that keeping his mother’s company after the breakup is the real reason why Edward invited Jamie over to visit, and Edward basically admits it. A shocked Jamie tells Edward that he wants to leave for a few hours because he doesn’t want to be at the house when Grace gets blindsided by the news. And the breakup goes about as horribly as you’d might expect.

Grace goes through the stages of grief, with denial and anger being the ones that are the hardest for her to overcome. She doesn’t want to give Edward the divorce, even though he’s offered her the house and a generous settlement. Meanwhile, Jamie is angry at his father and mostly takes Grace’s side in the breakup, even though deep down he now knows that Edward had been miserable in the marriage for many years. Jamie decides to spend more time with his mother when he can, so that she won’t feel so alone. He can barely speak to his father, and he doesn’t want to meet Angela.

As Jamie travels and back and forth between London and Seaford, the divorce starts to take an emotional toll on him too, as he sees his mother slide into a deep depression. She’s given up her hobby of collecting poems. She’s stopped caring about her personal appearance and she spends long hours staring into space. Grace also shows signs of mental instability that go beyond depression, because she leaves love notes for Edward around the house, in the delusional hope that he will change his mind and come back to her. And she gets a male Labrador Retriever puppy and names him Edward.

Jamie is somewhat of a loner, but he has two close friends he confides in about his personal problems—a couple named Jess (played by Aiysha Hart) and Dev (played by Ryan McKen). Jess and Dev, who are happily dating each other, offer some insightful advice to Jamie, because they know his dating habits, which is a side of Jamie that his parents’ don’t see. They tell Jamie that as much as he might dislike his father Edward’s seemingly aloof demeanor, Jamie can also be emotionally distant when it comes to romantic relationships, and make he needs to open up more.

When Jamie realizes that he’s a lot more like his father than he really wanted to admit, it prompts him to look at his parents’ divorce from a new perspective, and he starts to come to grips with how the failure of the marriage will affect his views on life. “Hope Gap” has a level of heartbreaking authenticity that isn’t seen very much in movies about divorce. That’s probably because writer/director William Nicholson went through something similar when his parents split up after nearly 30 years of marriage.

While so many movies about divorce have the divorced couple fighting over child custody, “Hope Gap” shows the perspective of an adult child of divorce who has to “choose sides” when the battle isn’t over custody but over loyalty. As the family at the center of the story, the three stars of the movie—Bening, Nighy and O’Connor—give admirable performances that are bound to pull at people’s heartstrings and tear ducts.

And the majestic seaside setting of “Hope Gap” (which is beautifully filmed by cinematographer Anna Valdez Hanks) gives added depth to the feelings of isolation, fear and wistfulness that the Axtons experience in the story. The treacherous waves that crash against the cliffs of Hope Gap are an apt metaphor for navigating the often-cruel devastation of divorce and not necessarily knowing how to survive it.

Roadside Attractions and Screen Media released “Hope Gap” in select U.S. cinemas on March 6, 2020. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is May 8, 2020.

 

Review: ‘Emma’ (2020), starring Anya Taylor-Joy

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Anya Taylor-Joy in "Emma"
Anya Taylor-Joy in “Emma” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Emma” (2020)

Directed by Autumn de Wilde

Culture Representation: This comedic adapation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel “Emma” is set in the fictional countryside town of Highbury, England, and revolves around the white upper-class main characters and some representation of their working-class servants.

Culture Clash: The story’s title character is a young woman who likes to meddle in people’s love lives as a matchmaker, and her snobbish ways about social status sometimes cause problems.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of Jane Austen novels and period movies about British culture.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn in “Emma” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

This delightful and gorgeously filmed adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel “Emma” stays mostly faithful to the original story but spices it up a bit to appeal to modern audiences. In her feature-film debut, director Autumn de Wilde takes the comedy of “Emma” and infuses it with more impish energy that’s lustier and more vibrant than previous film and TV adaptations.

The title character of the story is Emma Woodhouse (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), a woman of privilege in her early 20s, who lives with her widowed father in the fictional countryside town of Highbury, England. Emma is a somewhat spoiled bachelorette who thinks she has such high intelligence and excellent judgment that she takes it upon herself to play matchmaker to people she deems worthy of her romance advice.

The movie takes place over the course of a year, beginning one summer and ending the following summer. Viewers know this because different seasons are introduced in bold letters, like a different chapter in a book.

One of the changes from the book that the movie makes is that it begins with Emma attending the wedding of her friend and former governess Miss Taylor, (played by Gemma Whelan) to Mr. Weston (played by Rupert Graves). (The book begins after Emma has attended the wedding.) Because Emma had introduced the Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston to each other, Emma feels that she has what it takes to play matchmaker to the unmarried people in her social circle. It’s at the wedding that viewers are introduced to most of the story’s main characters.

Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse (played by Bill Nighy), is a loving dad but often exasperated by Emma’s antics. He’s a hypochondriac who tries to shield himself from imaginary drafts of cold that he’s sure will cause him to get sick.

George Knightley (played by Johnny Flynn) is the handsome and cynical brother-in-law of Emma’s older sister Isabella (played by Chloe Pirrie). He thinks Emma can be an annoying meddler, but he nevertheless seems fascinated by what she does.

Mr. Elton (played by Josh O’Connor) is a social-climbing local vicar who has his eye on courting Emma, mostly because of her wealth and privilege. He’s unaware that Emma doesn’t see him has husband material.

Miss Bates (played by Miranda Hart) is a friendly, middle-aged spinster who is slightly ashamed about being unmarried at her age. She lives with her mother, Mrs. Bates (played by Myra McFadyen), who is a friend of Mr. Woodhouse.

Missing from the wedding is Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill (played by Callum Turner), who has a different last name because he was adopted by his aunt, who is frequently ill. Frank chose to stay home with his aunt instead of attending his father’s wedding.

Emma, who says multiple times in the story that she has no interest in getting married, nevertheless takes it upon herself to tell other people who would be suitable spouses for them. She starts with her gullible best friend Harriet (played by Mia Goth), a slightly younger woman of unknown parentage who idolizes Emma for being more glamorous and seemingly more worldly than Harriet is. Knightley can see that Harriet will be easily manipulated by Emma, and he expresses disapproval over Emma befriending Harriet.

A local farmer named Mr. Martin (played by Connor Swindells) has asked Harriet to marry him, but Emma convinces Harriet to decline the proposal. Why? Even though Mr. Martin is kind and clearly adores Harriet, Emma thinks that Harriet deserves to marry someone who’s higher up on the social ladder. As far as Emma is concerned, Mr. Elton would be an ideal husband for Harriet, so Emma sets out to pair up Harriet and Mr. Elton, whom Emma describes as “such a good-humored man.” It’s too bad that Emma doesn’t see that his humor is really buffoonery.

Mr. Knightley occasionally stops by to visit the Woodhouses, and he warns Emma not to interfere in other people’s love lives. He thinks Mr. Elton would be a terrible match for Harriet. Mr. Knightley is right, of course, but Emma ignores his warnings. Emma begins to manipulate communications between Harriet and Mr. Elton, with the goal that they will end up together and happily married. At one point in the story, Emma and Mr. Knightley have a big argument and they stop talking to each other.

Meanwhile, a new ingenue comes on the scene named Jane Fairfax (played by  Amber Anderson), who is the orphaned niece of Miss Bates. Jane (who is close to Emma’s age) is attractive, intelligent, talented. And everyone seems to be gushing about how wonderful she is, so Emma gets jealous. As Emma complains in a catty moment, “One is very sick of the name Jane Fairfax!”

Frank Churchill, a very eligible bachelor, begins spending more time in the area. And it isn’t long before Emma has thoughts about who would make a suitable wife for him.

However, things don’t go as planned in Emma’s matchmaking schemes. A series of events (and a love triangle or two) make Emma frustrated that things aren’t going her way. Unlike most heroines of romantic stories, Emma can be very difficult, since she can be bossy, selfish and occasionally rude. However, there are moments when she redeems herself, such as when she tries to make amends for her mistakes. If you know anything about romantic comedies and don’t know anything about how “Emma” ends, you can still figure out what will happen and if she’ll fall in love.

One of the changes made in this “Emma” screenplay (written by Eleanor Catton) that’s different from the book is that it puts more heat in the characters’ sexuality, with a makeout scene that’s definitely not described in the book. Another change is Emma shows more acknowledgement of people in the working-class, such as her servants and Mr. Martin, by interacting with them more than she does in the novel.

As Emma, actress Taylor-Joy brings a little bit more of a “hot mess” attitude to the role than Gwyneth Paltrow did when she starred in 1996’s “Emma.” Whereas Paltrow’s version of Emma was the epitome of prim and proper, Taylor-Joy’s version gives the impression that she would be ready to show her legs or knickers under the right circumstances. And as Mr. Knightley, Flynn’s pouty-lipped delivery gives him a smoldering quality that Jeremy Northam’s Mr. Knightley didn’t quite have in 1996’s “Emma.”

“Emma” director de Wilde comes from a music-video background (she’s helmed several videos for rock singer Beck), and perhaps this background explains why this version of “Emma” has a snappy rhythm to the pacing, which is sort of a tribute to 1940s screwball comedies. This pacing is subtle if this is the first version of “Emma” that someone might see, but it’s more noticeable when compared to other movie and TV versions of “Emma,” which tend to be more leisurely paced.

This version of “Emma” is also pitch-perfect when it comes to its costume design (by Alexandra Byrne), production design (by Kave Quinn), art direction (by Alice Sutton) and set decoration (by Stella Fox), because everything will feel like you’ve been transported to the luxrious English estates of the era. The costume design in particular is worthy of an Oscar nomination.

“Emma” certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea for people who don’t like watching period pieces about stuffy British people. However, fans of Austen’s “Emma” novel will find a lot to enjoy about this memorable movie adaptation.

Focus Features released “Emma” in select U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment has moved up the VOD release of “Emma” to March 20, 2020.

Review: ‘The Kindness of Strangers,’ starring Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, Tahar Rahim, Caleb Landry Jones, Jay Baruchel and Bill Nighy

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Finlay Wojtak-Hissong, Zoe Kazan and Jack Fulton in “The Kindness of Strangers” (Photo by Per Arnesen)

“The Kindness of Strangers”

Directed by Lone Scherfig

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City, the dramatic film “The Kindness of Strangers” has a predominantly white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Six strangers find themselves connected in some way when a suburban housewife takes her two young sons to New York City to escape from her abusive husband.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of independent dramas with multiple layers to the story, but the ludicrous contrivances in the screenplay will irritate people who are expecting a story with more realism and substance.

Caleb Landry Jones and Andrea Riseborough in “The Kindness of Strangers” (Photo by Per Arnesen)

If you’re someone who disliked the 2005 Oscar-winning movie “Crash” (one of the most controversial Best Picture wins in Oscar history), then you’ll really despise the drama “The Kindness of Strangers.” The movie takes a concept that’s similar to “Crash”—several strangers in a big city are connected in some way to each other and eventually meet—and makes it even more trite and ridiculous at the same time.

In “The Kindness of Strangers,” the big city is New York (“Crash” took place in Los Angeles), home to thousands of restaurants. But apparently one restaurant—a fairly upscale Russian eatery called the New York Winter Palace—is the go-to place in town for people to have their problems solved. But first, here’s a summary of the six strangers who end up being connected in the story.

Clara is a housewife who lives in Buffalo, New York, but in the dead of night, she’s left her home with her two young sons—older son Anthony (played by Jack Zulton) and younger son Jude (played by Finlay Wojtak-Hissong)—by driving to New York City. The reason for the secret trip? She’s escaped from her physically and emotionally abusive husband Richard (played by Esben Smed), who’s also been abusing the kids. She won’t go to the police or a domestic-abuse shelter because her husband is a cop, and she’s afraid that he’ll find her.

Alice (played by Andrea Riseborough) is an emergency-room nurse who never seems to go home because she’s always popping up in the story at the right momement to “rescue” someone. Not only is she a nurse, but she also does a lot of volunteer work at a church, where she leads a forgiveness support group. She’s also a regular customer at the New York Winter Palace.

Timofey (played by Bill Nighy) is the owner of the New York Winter Palace, which he inherited from his Russian grandfather. Timofey is American, but he fakes a Russian accent when he’s on the job. He has a droll sense of humor and a “seen it all before” attitude toward life.

Marc (played by Tahar Rahim) has recently been released from prison, where he spent a little more than three years on drug-related charges. His brother was a drug addict who eventually overdosed and whose drug activity got Marc arrested and wrongfully convicted. (Marc was in the wrong place at the wrong time.) Near the beginning of the story, Marc meets with Timofey and some of his restaurant colleagues, and convinces them to hire him as a manager of the New York Winter Palace.

John Peter (played by Jay Baruchel) is Marc’s defense attorney. He’s become somewhat jaded over his job, because he says he hates defending clients he knows are guilty. He’s part of the forgiveness support group led by Alice. And after Marc gets out of prison, he accompanies John Peter to the support group too. However, every time Marc goes to the group meetings, he insists he doesn’t really need counseling and he’s just there to be supportive of John Peter.

Jeff (played by Caleb Landry Jones) is a screw-up who can’t seem to keep a job because he keeps making dumb mistakes. He also has a nasty temper, because when he’s fired from a mattress-selling job, he takes a chair and smashes a window with the chair, while his supervisor and co-workers watch in shock. Jeff is four months behind on his rent and is close to being evicted.

When viewers first see Clara and her sons in New York City, she tells them they’re taking a fun vacation. At first, she’s able to fool them into thinking that it’s an adventure and they don’t have to go back to school because “New York is going to be kind of a school for you.” But then reality sinks in (her money starts to run out) and she resorts to stealing to get money for food and other essentials.

Clara steals a designer dress and purse to sneak into upscale parties at hotels and restaurants, where she shovels some of the party food in a bag when no one is looking. One of the places where she ends up stealing food is the New York Winter Palace, where she pretends she’s part of a big family that’s throwing a party there. Marc the manager strikes up a conversation with Clara and seems a little suspicious of her story, especially when he later sees her behind the coat-check desk where the coat checker should be. Clara ended up stealing a coat, and Marc narrowly missed seeing her commit this theft before she quickly left the restaurant.

Meanwhile, broke Jeff is confronted by his landlord, who tells Jeff that he won’t wait anymore for the rent that’s four months overdue. The landlord tells Jeff that he has one hour to leave the apartment. This demand is not only very unrealistic, but it’s also very illegal. Anyone who knows anything about New York City’s eviction laws knows that evicting a tenant is a drawn-out legal process that isn’t done in one day.

But this movie isn’t concerned about details like that, because it would ruin the set-up for homeless Jeff to end up at a soup kitchen, where (you guessed it) saintly Alice happens to be working right at that moment. She gets Jeff to help out in serving people at the soup kitchen in exchange for him getting free meals.

Meanwhile, the situation for Clara and her sons has gone from bad to worse. Clara has taken her husband Richard’s car (which he could easily report as stolen), but the car is towed away because she parked in the wrong zone and has too many unpaid parking tickets. Clara and her sons had been living in the car and now need to find shelter.  And it’s the middle of an ice-cold winter, don’t you know, so that makes the situation even more pitiful.

Clara and the kids end up at the soup kitchen, where (surprise) Alice happens to be working. And then later, the family is really desperate for a place to stay, but Clara doesn’t want to go to a homeless shelter, so they end up at the church again where (surprise) Alice happens to be there too, right after she’s finished her support group meeting. Alice takes pity on Clara and the kids and offers them a room at the church for the night, even though it’s against the church rules. But wait, there’s more “coincidental” drama.

Clara and the kids barely have spent the night at the church when something almost tragic happens that involves someone being taken to the same hospital where Alice works and (surprise) she happens to be on duty that night too. And then Alice decides to break someone out of the hospital, even though it’s something that would get her fired and there are probably security cameras in the hospital that would catch her doing it.

And somewhere in this story, Clara ends up hiding underneath a table at the New York Winter Palace, where she’s seen by Marc, who doesn’t kick her out because he’s attracted to her. He lets her stay hidden under the table, as he serves her Russian food on the restaurant’s finest serving platters that he leaves on the floor like someone feeding a dog.

And then Clara finally comes to her senses and does something she should’ve done a long time ago: Decide to get a lawyer. She asks Marc if he knows any good lawyers. You already know who he recommends, even though John Peter’s specialty isn’t family law.

“The Kindness of Strangers,” written and directed by Lone Scherfig, is the kind of movie where the cast members’ acting isn’t the problem. (Although Nighy’s and Rahim’s American accents aren’t very convincing.) The biggest problem is the jumbled and hackneyed screenplay that has little regard for viewers’ intelligence.

The movie also takes the serious issue of domestic abuse and cynically uses it as just another plot device to connect the dots between these characters. And there are little details that indicate sloppy writing, such as a scene where incompetent and dim-witted Jake (of all people) puts someone on an ambulance gurney, when in reality an EMT or trained medical professional, not an untrained person, is required to do that.

Scherfig is capable of doing much better films (her Oscar-nominated 2009 drama “An Education” was one of the best movies of that year), so hopefully “The Kindness of Strangers” is not an indication that the quality of her work will continue to go downhill. “The Kindness of Strangers” isn’t the worst film you might ever see. It’s just not a very good movie, and you won’t feel much sympathy for the characters who make very bad decisions.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Kindness of Strangers” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on February 14, 2020.