By Brian Lafferty
March 27, 2011 (San Diego) – I’ve seen movies that begin full speed and with ambition but collapse under their own weight. On the other end of the spectrum, there have been movies that try to be extremely low-key but eventually implode for the same reason. A Somewhat Gentle Man goes for the mundane and something in me kept anticipating a collapse. When it became apparent three-quarters of the way through that this wouldn’t happen, I sat back and enjoyed.
Ulrik (Stellan Skarsgård) is an ex-convict just released from a twelve-year prison stint for murder. Like Carlito Brigante he vows to stay straight. However, temptation for revenge on the snitch, at the behest of his former boss in crime, coupled with problems on his new job make life difficult. It doesn’t help that his son, a married adult with a baby on the way, doesn’t want to see him again, per his wife’s wishes.
Director Hans Petter Moland makes the pervasive mundaneness engaging. He and Skarsgåard make every little thing Ulrik does interesting to watch. This includes him watching television, walking to work, or having coffee. The sex between Ulrik and his landlord is humorously routine. A childbirth scene is transformed from a tired cliché to a fresh and funny scene by playing it matter-of-factly. Moland sustains the film because he never allows it to wallow in the humdrum.
Moland’s direction of his actors is the key. He is aided by Kim Fupz Aakeson’s script, which imbues the characters with variably humorous, wry, and dead serious personalities, all of which click.
It is not one of those broad laugh out loud movies. Most of the time I smiled and there was nothing wrong with that. Mostly it was because of Ulrik. I found it sophisticatedly funny to see him try to stay straight in a world full of criminal temptation, changes, and hardships. The contrast between this and his stoic, wry, and unemotional demeanor kept me entertained.
The subtitles do a splendid job of conveying the humor while not losing anything in translation. It was the dialogue that made me laugh the most. My favorite lines were spoken by Sven, the owner of the garage where Ulrik works. He doesn’t appear much but when he does, he usually speaks in long, philosophical moralizations. The subtitles have the same spot-on timing as Sven’s delivery.
The script also kept me engaged by going in unexpected directions. The ending is a case in point. It didn’t end when I thought it would. Writer Aaakeson adds a couple of twists and scenes that made the third act unpredictable.
Watching A Somewhat Gentle Man called to mind one of the best advices on screenwriting I learned from a former professor, Robert Engels (his credentials include co-writing Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me with David Lynch): Get a character from point A to point Z. Between these two points anything can happen.
As a whole, the movie doesn’t have a lot of structure. The film is constructed of several subplots that come and go, often without rhyme or reason. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as the plots as long as there is an overall story that unifies them. It works in this film for that reason.
A Somewhat Gentle Man is currently playing until Thursday at the Ken Cinema.
A Strand Releasing release. Directed by Hans Petter Moland. Written by Kim Fupz Aakeson. Cinematography by Philip Øgaard. Original music by Halfdan E. With Stellan Skarsgård, Bjørn Floberg, Gard B. Eidsvold, Jorunn Kjellsby, and Bjørn Sundquist. Unrated. In Norwegian, with English subtitles.