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Kramer vs Kramer

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Kramer vs Kramer
 
Robert Benton I 1979 I USA
 
 

Dealing with the divorce issue in films is always a very difficult thing to do, and likely to spark controversy whichever way it's done. Considering that many people will have different viewpoints about any subject matter, be it religion, abortion or, in this case, divorce, how can a filmmaker illustrate the circumstances, positions, consequences and the sheer pain that is generated as a result of divorce, with both truthfulness and reliability? Kramer vs Kramer manages to one way or another fulfill all these points. The biggest commercial success of 1979, and winner of 5 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, Kramer vs Kramer is one of the most remembered family dramas in the history of cinema, which, at the time of its initial release, became a social phenomenon. Told with serenity and simplicity, and, most of all, sincerity, by director Robert Brenton, the film, whose thematic axis revolves around marital separation and the custody of a child, is a very fine piece of cinema, sustained by a trio of excellent performances.

 

Kramer vs Kramer is a very simple film, which at the same time tells a very simple story. Joanna is a woman who has always lived like a daughter, a wife, a mother - but never like herself. Tormented and confused, she decides one night to leave her family [husband and child] in order to find herself, as a woman and as a human being. Thus she provokes a conflict between she and her husband, Ted Kramer, a publicist whose one of his life's best days is ruined by the tragic decision his wife has taken. Billy Kramer, their six-year-old son, has to try to comprehend the why of his mother's departure, while his father begins to truly get closer to him. In the process of divorce, he's the object of the entire pugna; husband and wife fight to obtain the custody of the child, but he tries to make them understand that he can't be with both of them.

 

Men that leave women and women that leave men; that was the object of interminable debates that stood out at the end of the '70s, époque of enormous sociological transformations. Which is why Kramer vs Kramer was a film that was relevant at that time [and, surprisingly, it still is]; because it spoke about a subject that people were interested in, that people could care for. However, the film, which was based on the novel by Avery Corman, is prominent for offering an innovative perspective of the trouble thats caused by separation; for once, it isn't the man who leaves the woman but the other way round. When Joanna leaves her husband, an abyss is created between the two and lots of problems arise; the irony lies in the fact that the abyss that once existed between Ted and his son [who didn't really know each other until the separation] is now disappearing, since they're now more together than they were before, and their relationship is rapidly flourishing. They were almost total strangers until then, and we're shown that it is the child who knew his mother better than Ted did. When father and son go shopping and Ted is about to take a detergent, Billy, with the utmost pride, tells him that that isn't the detergent Joanna usually used, so he informs his father that she always used the pink one. This is the very moment where we find out that the relationship between mother and son was better than the ones between husband and wife and father and son. Which tells us that Ted was, one way or another, somehow disconnected - isolated - from his family members. The divorce shuts a gate, creates an unbreakable barrier, if you will, between Ted and Joanna, and the viewer is demonstrated this with great finesse. Although it may go unseen to the naked eye, is it really a coincidence that, three times [not excluding the very ending scene], Joanna is found in a lift and abruptly the doors close, right in front of Ted's face? The film doesn't only deal with the dire circumstances that divorce brings but with the re-forging of Ted and his son. Kramer vs Kramer is a film about relationships, divorce and wounds that can be healed; all these aspects looked at with an honest and clean eye by Robert Benton, whose camera tells us what the characters' mouths do not.

 

But the film isn't all themes, as it can also be viewed as a magnificent work of acting in its own right. The performances are without a doubt the things that really keep the film going - could you imagine the same film, with the very same story, but with actors of a lower caliber? Perhaps you can, but it wouldn't have been as good, would it? Dustin Hoffman, in the role of Ted, is sensational, sublime - simply stunning - as a person who has to get to understand and be patient with his son, an individual who is faced with problems innumerable and whose life seems to be going downhill by the minute, if it weren't for his son, who helps him to comprehend. Ted is a man that has to forget about his professional success and focus on his son, in order to bond a home that has ruptured with the sudden abandon of his wife, and Dustin Hoffman does all this [and more] with admirable skill. The Academy garnered Hoffman with an Oscar for Best Actor [and rightfully so]. The most Oscar nominated actress of all time, the mythic Meryl Streep [who also won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1979], plays Joanna, a woman whose internal confusion has shattered her family.  She, as always, is also a true standout, as is Justin Henry, who plays her son, in an Academy-Award nominated role for his excellent performance. The rest of the film's components  - the thoughtful cinematography, the editing and the musical score are top-notch, too.

 

Another thing that most startles about the film is the contrast between the two genres: the drama and the comedy. The director cleverly juxtaposes both of them, thus making us both cry and laugh, even so if the drama genre is the one that stands out the most. The title Kramer vs Kramer is a very effective one; once read, it immediately conveys the image of a battle, a fight or something of the sort -  which is just what it is. It's a seemingly interminable fight between Ted and himself; Ted and his son; Ted and his wife. He gets strength from where there isn't any; he loses his job, his wife and all he can do is fight for his son. At the end it all becomes a judicial battle, because when Joanna returns after more than a year of silence, she declares that she wants to take her son. At the end of the film, Benton closes the doors  - in both a literal and figurative sense -  having shown us, with the utmost sincerity, how abhorrent and dreadful divorce can be - and its consequences - telling us that that nowadays, for whatever reason, society has got used to this [and that's the saddest of all things]. The thing is, Kramer vs Kramer is not an optimistic film  - unlike Capra's work -; nor is it a pessimistic one in the truest kafkian spirit; Benton merely tells it like it is: a life with its ups and downs, its joy and its sorrow, its truths and its lies. Kramer vs Kramer may be a simple  - but not simplistic -  type of film, yet its message, along with the rest of its components, are the things that turn into something much more grand: a story about how painful life can be, how we're constantly harming each other, be it absent-mindedly or deliberately, and topped off by three powerhouse performances. Hang on, so it's not perfect, but Kramer vs Kramer does not disappoint; rather, it enthralls.

 

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Reviewed by Pablo Hernandez, 2004