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  Movie Reviews  

An Ordinary Man

This character study compensates for certain narrative hiccups and a bland sense of time and place by offering an effective performance by Ben Kingsley to go along with a story that asks difficult questions and goes to places many similar films would avoid. In fact, every time An Ordinary Man seems to be headed into a minefield of clichés, it takes an unexpected detour and the film's final such excursion comes like a gut-punch. The clinching moment is presented so matter-of-factly that it's difficult not to be shocked by the scene - even if you see it coming.

Brad Silberling's An Ordinary Man transpires in the former Yugoslavia and follows attempts by a war criminal, known only as "The General" (Ben Kingsley), to avoid capture. The General is presented as a cold, emotionless man who is most likely guilty of the things of which he has been accused (the massacre of thousands of men and boys under his command). Nevertheless, we see from his infrequent interactions with others that there are plenty of people willing to harbor him, raising the age-old question of where the dividing line exists between "patriot" and "monster." The General has sufficient self-awareness that he might place himself in the latter category; others would see it differently.

After being relocated by his chief protector (Peter Serafinowicz) to a new apartment, The General comes face-to-face with an unexpected visitor - the maid, Tanja (Hira Hilmar), who cleaned the place for the former inhabitant and was oddly not informed of the change of resident. Suspecting an assassin, The General first grills her then has her strip naked to check for concealed weapons. Convinced that she may be legitimate, he tells her to get to work, then criticizes her methods and asks her all sorts of inappropriate questions. This seems to be the beginning of a friendship - or at least a mentoring relationship - but nothing in An Ordinary Man is quite that simple.

For viewers, the most difficult aspect of watching An Ordinary Man is coping with the largely sympathetic portrayal of a man whose past misdeeds put him alongside the vilest characters brought to the screen (at least in serious, non-escapist productions). Silberling doesn't necessarily expect us to empathize with The General but he at least wants to provide a level of understanding. His approach brings to mind all sorts of philosophical arguments about what constitutes "evil" and whether those who are thus named consider the label valid. This is a far cry from Silberling's previous directorial outing, the horrible Land of the Lost, which badly damaged his Hollywood career.

Ben Kingsley (exhibiting a bit of the same flair he displayed in Sexy Beast) is superb but he is matched, line-by-line and scene-by-scene by Hira Hilmar, an Icelandic actress whose profile has been on the rise in recent years. Kingsley effectively conveys The General's complexity, including his arrogance, his sense of entitlement, and eventually his guilt, pain, and self-loathing. The only thing questionable about the actor's performance is his accent, which is a weird cross between Cockney and Scottish, with some other inflections thrown in. Hilmar develops Tanja into a solid foil for The General whose motivations are more complex than what we first assume them to be.

As befits a character study, Silberling doesn't rush things. An Ordinary Man is slowly paced but doesn't suffer as a result. The lead performances, their peculiar chemistry, and their evolving relationship (which thankfully doesn't include a romantic component) keep us engaged. It's a little disappointing that, despite being filmed in Belgrade, the movie is unable to capture a strong sense of place, but that's a minor quibble. An Ordinary Man depicts the many shades of complicated character with a minimalist plot that doesn't demand complicity from an audience to provide a glimpse of understanding.

© 2018 James Berardinelli

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