One can understand why Ben Kingsley not only opted to star in Brad Silberling’s “An Ordinary Man” but agreed to serve as one of its producers: it’s practically a one-man show that invites a flashy performance in which he gets virtually all the good lines. And Kingsley is not one to turn down an invitation to ham it up.
Ham it up he certainly does as The General, a Serbian war criminal hiding out in his homeland, protected by a shadowy cabal of loyal nationalist followers who shunt him from safe house to safe house as government officials and international investigators engage in a supposedly intense search for him. The General’s continued devotion to skilled, decisive action is immediately established when, after complaining about the quality of the produce in a store, he saves the proprietor, who’s being threatened by a gun-toting thief, with simple sneer and flick of the wrist. This is one tough dude.
But he still must follow the directives of supporters, and his driver (Peter Serafinowicz) informs him that they’re moving him to yet another apartment in hopes of evading capture at a time when the Serbian government is feeling pressure to find him or lose some promised aid. The General winds up at a roomy but drab flat, where he is interrupted the following morning by the former occupant’s maid Tanja (Hera Hilmar), whom he frisks in a most complete manner, ordering her to strip and shower, before effectively hiring her himself.
Much of the first half of the movie involves The General berating Tanja about her dress, her cooking, and other aspects of her work. He’s as imperious with her as he was with his soldiers during the Yugoslav wars, but at the same time shows some shards of concern for her. But it’s only after a mid-movie twist, at a dance for which he’s bought her a new gown, that their relationship changes significantly. It’s less of a surprise to us than it is to The General, but it’s all Silberling has to offer.
For the rest of the picture the relationship deepens as both reveal information about their past. Not that The General becomes any less demanding or Kingsley’s delivery any less stentorian. But we begin to glimpse the human face behind the monstrous grin, and it becomes clear that he longs to reconnect with his roots. The question is whether Tanja can be induced—or commanded—to help him.
The title of “An Ordinary Man” is only partially ironic. The General is actually an extraordinary figure—perhaps extraordinarily evil, as he admits himself. But he is also, the screenplay suggests, a human being, with the same feelings and needs we all have. That’s true, of course, but since we are never introduced to any of the people who suffered from his brutality, the equation is a one-sided one; and the ending, which effectively argues that however bad he might be, there are people who are worse, further diminishes an honest assessment of his guilt.
Throughout, Kingsley strides the movie like a colossus, and Silberling indulges his star’s most histrionic inclinations. One can imagine the script, shorn of its outdoor scenes, as a one-man play, with the other characters reduced to empty space The General can address without responses from them. Certainly Hilmar’s Tanja is pretty much a cipher, and the actress, while attractive, doesn’t have much to do besides bear the brunt of Kingsley’s rants. Serafinowicz has even less; his performance consists mostly of exasperated reaction shots.
Interestingly enough, the picture was actually shot in Serbia, which—thanks to the crisp widescreen lensing of Magdalena Górka, gives the film a visually authentic feel. Unfortunately that sense of authenticity doesn’t carry over to the picture as a whole, which is more a strident star vehicle than a serious study of the effect of genocidal cruelty on its perpetrators and their victims.