Most comedies announce themselves as such right out of the gate, hitting the audience with a few gags or funny set pieces in the first few minutes, but that's not the case with En Ganske Snill Mann (aka A Somewhat Gentle Man), from Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland. The film's wit is dry and subtle, and the story plays out more like a drama than a comedy in its early reels, so much so that you're not sure at first if the movie knows it's being funny. But when the humor begins to inch its way into the picture, it's clever, satisfying, and very funny; it also gives Stellan Skarsgård a rare chance to show his talents in a leading role, and he steps up with a performance that's strong, nuanced, hilarious, and moving as a reluctant crook with reservations about returning to a life of crime.
In A Somewhat Gentle Man, we're introduced to Ulrik, Skarsgård's character, as he's being released from prison. One of the guards presents Ulrik with a bottle of beer as a going-away present, and gives him one strong bit of advice -- walk away from the prison and don't look back. Of course, moments later Ulrik is turning his head to look at the guard as he strolls on to a new life of freedom, and it's indicative of the kind of guy Ulrik is; he has a hard time following rules and keeping promises, but for a man who served 12 years in prison for murder, he seems remarkably free of malice. Ulrik is a quiet, sweet-natured fellow who seems to want little more from life than a place to sleep, the occasional cigarette, and a square meal, but after being released from jail, we discover he has a rather dangerous benefactor. Rune Jensen (Bjørn Floberg) is a small-time gangster who helped support Ulrik's wife and son while he was behind bars, and now he wants Ulrik to pay him back by killing someone. Kenny (Henrik Mestad) double-crossed Jensen in a stolen-car ring, and he also informed on Ulrik to the police after he shot and killed a man who was sleeping with his wife, Wenche (Kjersti Holmen). Ulrik knows what's expected of him, but he's not interested in killing anyone; he prefers to concentrate on his new job in an auto repair shop run by fast-talking Sven (Bjørn Sundquist) and spend his evenings watching television in a shabby basement room he's renting from Karen (Jorunn Kjellsby), Jensen's sullen sister, who drags Ulrik into arguably the least romantic relationship in screen history. But we get a glimpse into Ulrik's violent side when Merete (Jannike Kruse), the pretty but glum secretary at the repair shop, is visited by her abusive former husband. The man starts beating Merete, and Ulrik responds by first giving the husband a head-butt that nearly knocks him out, and then breaking his arm with a single blow. Once fate turns against Ulrik, he reluctantly agrees to pull the trigger on Kenny, but the evening takes an unexpected turn when Ulrik's plans change at the last minute.
Stellan Skarsgård delivers just one of several fine performances featured in A Somewhat Gentle Man, but it does give him an opportunity to show off his comedic skills in a starring role, and he turns Ulrik into a truly impressive comic character. Skarsgård carefully underplays Ulrik much of the time, and by doing so he allows his rare moments of joy and wonder to shine like sunlight. He plays the gentle, schlubby persona to subtle perfection with fine increments of bemusement -- Skarsgård's Ulrik can communicate volumes with the raise of an eyebrow, and his dumbfounded reactions to Karen's blunt and singularly unarousing advances are brilliant. Jorunn Kjellsby nearly matches Skarsgård in making more out of less as Karen, whose growing affection for Ulrik seems scarcely different than her initial contempt, and Kjersti Holmen is good enough in her brief turn as Ulrik's estranged wife that it's hard not to wish she had been given more screen time. Bjørn Floberg's Jensen is just as greasy and self-important as the story demands, and he's been given an inspired comic foil in Gard B. Eidsvold's Rolf, who isn't very smart but also not as dumb as Jensen imagines. If Jannike Kruse's Merete is sometimes harsher than she needs to be, she also communicates her character's considerable pain with impressive clarity. And though Jan Gunnar Røise doesn't always get to show a lot of depth as Ulrik's estranged son, Geir, he makes up for it in a great scene in the last act.
If Stellan Skarsgård's performance is subtle and makes much out of small details, then director Hans Petter Moland gives him a vehicle that matches him perfectly. A Somewhat Gentle Man takes its time and tells its story in small gestures, but the bits and pieces add up to something that's funny yet dramatically honest at the same time, and Moland gives his characters enough time and space to grow into something rounded and believable rather than flat comic archetypes. The film's look -- sharp, clear, and just detailed enough to show the flaws in every surface -- compliments the languid but realistic tone of the narrative, and Philip Øgaard's cinematography is perfectly matched to the material. Finally, Kim Fupz Aakeson's screenplay puts an original and intriguing spin on the traditional tale of the jailbird trying to go straight; Aakeson and Moland have taken a story that could have been full of clichés and made it fresh and very funny without rendering Ulrik any less compelling or human. A Somewhat Gentle Man may be a bit too low-key for audiences who want their comedy fast and furious, but anyone who misses the gentle eccentricity of Bill Forsyth's early films will find a Nordic counterpart in this small gem.
releases for A Somewhat Gentle Man on AllMovie
A Somewhat Gentle Man (2009)
A Somewhat Gentle Man
|May 3, 2011