Ben Kingsley is not a tall man, but he looms awesomely large in writer-director Brad Silberling’s “An Ordinary Man,” whose slyly misleading title refers to what becomes of a notorious Bosnian Serb general living in what used to be Yugoslavia — a monster guilty of torture, murder, and other unforgivable crimes who has spent the subsequent years attempting to blend in. The versatile actor, whose performances have run the gamut of good and evil from Gandhi to “Sexy Beast” maniac Don Logan, settles somewhere in the middle here, which isn’t at all what one might expect when playing the country’s most wanted war criminal. Still, it’s the right answer in a goulash-heavy character study that’s ultimately more interested in human psychology than unresolved world politics.
Kingsley’s domineering lead performance is worth the price of admission alone, although “An Ordinary Man” is actually a two-hander, divided between the Oscar winner and relative newcomer Hera Hilmar, an English-speaking Icelandic actress whose career was launched by “Life in a Fishbowl,” and whose girlish appearance and submissive demeanor contrast sharply with her imposing co-star. In an almost theatrical flourish, Kingsley and Hilmar’s characters are identified only as “The General” and “The Maid,” which suggests the level of abstraction in the way Silberling views their dynamic (though driven by dialogue and relatively self-contained, the film is plenty cinematic, as Polish DP Magdalena Górka elegantly creates atmosphere within a limited number of locations).
At first, showing up at the dangerous general’s door unannounced, the maid seems almost laughably powerless by comparison, a disposable plaything for this petty old tyrant to boss around as he pleases. But things are not as they seem. Silberling is clever enough to anticipate where savvy audiences’ imaginations will take them — rushing to assume that the maid is in fact some kind of elite assassin, or else the keeper of some nefarious hidden agenda.
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If Silberling had written that movie, there’s a good chance he could have gotten it made at one of the major Hollywood studios. But video store aisles are already heavy with Odessa Files and Marathon Men. Instead, Silberling aims to peer inside the mind of such a monster, without letting the people of modern Serbia scapegoat him quite so easily. In the film’s most incendiary exchange, the general describes the bloody ethnic cleansing policy he helped carry out as “a deposit on your future” to the young maid, and indeed, her role here serves partly to examine the disturbing phenomenon by which members of the younger generation (most notably neo-Nazis) naïvely endorse their elders’ most unconscionable policies.
Compared to the sneering, one-dimensionally evil warmonger Gary Oldman played in last year’s “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” Kingsley’s more nuanced despot might indeed be considered an ordinary man, his humanity visible despite the tough exterior. Hiding in plain sight, shuttled by supporters from one rat hole to the next (as a longtime loyalist, Peter Serafinowicz plays his link to the outside world), this fugitive general has wrestled with his sins in virtual isolation all these years. He may have avoided arrest, trial, and likely execution, but he is still a prisoner of his own making — a great white shark confined to an suffocatingly small tank.
And so, the maid’s arrival offers him something he has clearly lacked all these years: company, an audience, and potentially, a chance to revisit the one place on earth where he is most vulnerable, the rural countryside hometown where he would almost certainly be shot on the spot if recognized. Despite the implied atrocities in the general’s past, the film isn’t designed as a mechanism for violence or shootouts — although there are guns in the opening scene, the last one, and at several points in between.
Both characters possess a capacity to kill one another, neatly illustrated in a pair of scenes: he defuses a convenience-store robbery at the outset, she holds his life in her hands while shaving him with a straight razor at home. And yet, they’re more dangerous simply exchanging ideas. That thoughtfulness explains why “An Ordinary Man” exists as an independent film, not a more generic piece of studio entertainment (which is just as well, since a couple of suspense sequences fail to generate any palpable tension). This movie actually has something on its mind.
When not directing kid pics and television (which constitute most of his credits), Silberling clearly aspires to emotional, artistic filmmaking (“Moonlight Mile” and “City of Angels” were earnest, if flawed attempts at such). Here, he could be accused of displaying a bit too much empathy for an imaginary war criminal — that misstep would be more obvious if Silberling were attempting to humanize a Nazi officer at large — and yet, he’s saved by his star. An incredibly precise actor who understands exactly how to play to the camera, conveying volumes via even the slightest microexpressions, Kingsley navigates the tricky mix of humor, horror, and deep-seated regret that make this man, if not exactly ordinary, then relatable, at least.