By Michael Nordine
A Somewhat Gentle Man
Dir. Hans Petter Moland, Norway, Strand Releasing
The use of the word “somewhat” in this film’s title is telling. The Norwegian drama A Somewhat Gentle Man, for all the things it is, is precious few of them to an extreme degree. It is, for instance, a tale of redemption, though this doesn’t feel like its focal point; similarly, Ulrik, the title character, played by Stellan Skarsgård, takes steps toward reform better measured in inches than feet. Hans Petter Moland's film is either a jack of all trades, master of none—well-rounded but unclear in its overall intentions—or an experiment in balance whose results are difficult to ascertain.
This balancing act can be felt most clearly in the character of Ulrik himself. Whatever internal goings-on color his calm, hard-to-read exterior reveal themselves indirectly, if at all. We are introduced to Ulrik, in the opening shot, via an extended close-up of his tired, lined face moments before he is to be released from prison after serving a twelve-year sentence for murder. Quickly thereafter, Ulrik establishes himself as being not dissimilar from most other semi-reformed convicts around whom films such as this revolve: despite his past, any violent behavior on Ulrik’s part tends to manifest itself in as chivalrous and dignified a manner as possible. Unlike other such characters, however, no hints are made toward a storm just beneath Ulrik’s cool surface; what dark secrets he may harbor remain out of reach. Ulrik is just sort of there much of the time, and what you see is what you get. Hesitant—or unable—as he may be to exhibit any outward signs of his struggles, he does juggle an impressive amount throughout the film: loyalty to small-time crime boss Jensen, who wants to bring Ulrik back into the fold; a desire for revenge competing with a fear of traveling down the same path that landed him in prison; no less than three lovers; and a son with whom he must make amends. This latter subplot, the personal corollary to Ulrik's professional qualms, is what ultimately pushes Ulrik to show his true colors, muted though they may be.
What Ulrik’s calm mostly achieves is to keep us at arm’s length from his troubles. It is, after all, difficult to get too involved in a film’s drama when the man caught in the middle of it all never seems to mind much. Hidden behind extra pounds and a scraggly ponytail, Skarsgård embodies Ulrik and his sangfroid with seeming effortlessness. This is to his credit; showing outward signs of himself while portraying such a rock of a character would have proven damaging. Moland’s evenhanded sketching of his protagonist succeeds at least in not being overly expository or clichéd, but there is also often little in the way of genuine conflict.
Less does not always necessarily equal more, clearly, but the film’s humor, perhaps its most successful element, proves an exception to this rule. Endlessly deadpan, A Somewhat Gentle Man manages to elicit laughs without always making it clear that it’s asking for them. There is, for instance, the treatment of Rolf (Gard B. Eidsvold), Jensen's near-silent, endlessly bossed around henchman, who falls under the same generic umbrella as every other marginalized sidekick, such as Donny from The Big Lebowski: Schadenfreude at its most comical. Yet even the way that Man gives its most serious elements a comedic twist is sometimes off-putting; the characteristically dry Scandinavian humor occasionally dampens, rather than works alongside, dramatic tension.
Apropos of the film’s understated-but-not-dreary milieu, all of this is set to 1950s-style lounge music. This fluidity between the stark and the darkly comical is at the heart of the film's appeal, not least because it represents a break from some of the Scandinavian cinema that has been making waves in America as of late. Where such hits as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Let the Right One In angled for attention in sometimes dubious ways, Man (as well as Thomas Vinterberg’s upcoming Submarino) is refreshingly understated. Moland’s austere approach applies to the film’s visuals and mood. Cinematographer Philip Øgaard’s color palette rarely extends beyond the expected grays of Norway in late winter, a more matter of fact than grim choice (like cod for dinner or bad television, it’s an accepted part of daily life for these characters—and no one bothers complaining).
More than gentleness, it is ultimately reluctance that defines Ulrik. When urged by a strangely supportive prison guard to “look forward” upon his release, he’s discouraged by the bleak expanse of snow and sky that lies before him. This moment seems to stay with Ulrik for the remainder of the film. He reacts to his surroundings far more than he instigates, but each break from this behavioral pattern proves a small victory for both Ulrik and the film as a whole. It is within such moments—a dance with a woman for whom he cares, a barely-there smile, a cheerful acknowledgment of spring—that Ulrik’s slow growth comes into focus.