Brad Silberling is a man with many job titles. He’s been a television producer and director for quite a number of years, while occasionally dipping his toe into the world of writing and directing films, such as Land of the Lost, City of Angels and Moonlight Mile. His latest work, An Ordinary Man, is also one of his smallest in terms of scale.
Effectively a two-person play set in and around a spare apartment housing a fugitive war criminal called the General (Ben Kingsley) in the period following the particularly brutal Balkan wars, the film concerns the character’s relationship with an unsuspecting young maid named Tanja (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar), who visits him daily and serves as both a sounding board for his knowledge and theories on why he is aloud to live fairly out in the open, even though he is supposedly a wanted man.
When the pair do venture out of the apartment, he is usually taking her to some of his favorite places, where many of the local recognize and revere (or fear) him, and would certainly never turn him in. To many in the region, the General is still very much a hero. But he is also bored, and so he takes the opportunity to probe and get to know Tanja, knowing full well that his interrogative powers will quickly unveil who she really is. Her inclination is to stay silent and say as little as possible, but eventually he pries out of her a sad story of dead parents and struggling to make ends meet as she effectively raised herself.
Some of this is true. We do catch glimpses of bodyguards following the General when he leaves the house (including one played beautifully stone faced by Peter Serafinowicz), but for the most part, An Ordinary Man is about two very different people engaged in fact-finding missions about each other.
I was never quite sure if Silberling wants us to feel sympathy for the General’s dilemma, never being able to return home to see his wife. They lost a daughter during the wars, and the marriage didn’t survive the trauma. As much as one’s inclination would be to despise this man, Kingsley paints him as someone who is the product of the times, something I’m guessing an international court would not find so convincing. As much personality and charm as Kingsley injects into his portrayal, he’s also careful to never let us forget the General is also a monster, responsible for massacres and other wartime horrors.
The final act of An Ordinary Man involves a trip to the General’s hometown to, in theory, see his estranged wife. It’s a bold move whatever the reason for the journey, and it puts a lot of people in mortal danger. But the General has made a decision about the rest of his life, and per usual, no one will stand in his way.
Kingsley and Hilmar are perfectly matched for a succession of tense back-and-forth conversations. Both have ulterior motives for being there and wanting to know so much, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be naturally curious as well. It’s a curious film that I’m not certain works entirely, but the two leads are so interesting in their performance choices that I couldn’t help but care where this unholy alliance was heading. The movie isn’t meant to be political; it’s more about the combination at the center of the story and uncovering mysterious pasts until the most complete picture possible is revealed. That aspect kept me interested and watching until the bitter end.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.