Ben Kingsley’s chameleonic ability, his skill at transforming into wildly different characters of varying ethnicities from film to film, will always be worthy of praise. But I think we shouldn’t overlook his talent for hamming it up like a champion, a skill he seems to be making greater use of during the later stages of his stages. He puts it to good use in a domineering performance in An Ordinary Man, chewing the edges off as a Serbian war criminal who befriends a young maid whose motives are a bit cloudy.
Written and directed by Brad Silberling, An Ordinary Man is Kingsley at his most entertaining. He’s never better than when he’s going over the top to carry the dramatic load, and that tends to be in the plethora of mentor/mentee films he takes part. But where Kinglsey is often mismatched with underwhelming co-stars, Hera Hilmar more than measures up. Kingsley towers as a man simply known as the General, who is shuffled around from safehouse to safehouse by Serbian loyalists in an effort to keep him from being arrested for war crimes. The General may be getting older but he’s still a tough cookie, as we see in the opening scene when he saves the owner of a local grocer from a robbery, simply by being bold and swift. A man of some principle, the rescue came moments after he had been belly-aching over the quality of produce.
Like Henry Hill growing bored of living in Witness Protection, the General has grown tired of a life of hiding in plain sight. He’s fed up with being shuttled from one shabby apartment to another by his handler (The Tick‘s Peter Serafinowicz) and wants a change of scenery. He gets that when his latest bland hideout is suddenly visited upon by the former occupant’s maid, Tanja (Kingsley’s The Ottoman Lieutenant co-star Hera Hilmar), who he greets by forcing her to strip down while holding a gun to her head. Convinced she’s not secretly there to kill him, the General invites her to be his maid instead, with a pay raise. Hopefully it’s for hazard pay.
A low budget two-hander, the film mostly takes place in drab apartment buildings while the General and Tanja warm up to one another. It quickly becomes clear (as if the whole stripping down thing wasn’t a clue) that he still fancies himself a commander of others. He enjoys the power and influence he has over Tanja right from the start, although as they become closer she begins to exert some control over him. The General enjoys the odd prank, like going out into the city and making fools of those who are tracking him. Tanja is mostly dragged along and forced to do whatever the General wants, regardless of the danger it puts them both in. It’s only after a sudden mid-movie reveal, that isn’t so surprising really, that we see their relationship truly deepen.
Silberling wants us to see the man behind the monster, and let’s make it clear that the General is a monster. He practically brags about the genocidal acts he committed on behalf of his country, frequently bringing it up as a means of provoking a reaction from Tanja. She rarely indulges, and the General usually ends up musing with himself about his past actions, and if there are any regrets. But this isn’t a story that wants to dive too deep into what makes a man like the General tick, and it becomes unseemly that we’re basically being asked to sympathize with him. Or at the very least to overlook what he’s done and just enjoy the witty repartee between him and Tanja. We never see the impact of what the General has done, so he automatically comes out smelling like a rose. It’s not the most interesting angle this story could have taken, which may be why it doesn’t seem as if anything of consequence is happening.
Actually filmed in Serbia, An Ordinary Man is anything but ordinary on a visual level. Clearly shot on a tight budget, it benefits greatly from the authentic locations and population. But this is Kingsley’s show, he launches from rant to rant like a cannon’s fusillade, only allowing himself one or two scant moments of subtlety. Hilmar isn’t asked to be a firebrand, but she stands tall in her reserved yet defiant reactions to the General’s brazenness.
One wishes An Ordinary Man had more narrative momentum and that it was more of a character study but it’s got Kingsley proving again why he’s one of the most watchable actors working today, and that’s enough.