What it's about: An unnamed General [Ben Kingsley] is hiding out in a small apartment following the Yugoslavia civil war. The General is suspected of countless atrocities against his own people, now a fugitive hiding in plain sight. He slowly passes his days playing table tennis against himself and risking his safety by walking down to a small shop to buy some vegetables. One day a young woman walks through his door, the maid of the apartment's former occupant. Though the General doesn't immediately trust the woman, he offers to buy her out, giving him some contact with the world again. Their relationship blossoms as his security is in increasing danger.
An Ordinary Man is primarily a two-hander, with long stretches of the film focuses on the General and Tanja, keeping them away from the world in his small apartment. I typically tend to appreciate these kinds of films because they can focus solely on character and relationship. As is the case with most two-hander films, An Ordinary Man is small and intimate among a giant backdrop. The film unfortunately doesn't use the Yugoslavia Civil War story particularly effectively in a few different ways and that hurts the narrative impact of its characters.
The tone of the film is pretty difficult to take. The General is supposed to be feared, condemned for the horrible war crimes he committed, but he also comes off as the cool 90s-era cinematic gangster -- like Kingsley's turn as Don Logan in Sexy Beast. Kingsley is so damned charismatic that this is hard to avoid.
Across from Kingsley is Icelandic born actress Hera Hilmar, who is up to the task of carrying the film with her iconic co-star. There is something both mysterious and innocent about her presence as soon as she comes into the film, which is paid off in an interesting way.
The scene where the General and Tanja meet is the film's best but also its most complicated. The film takes on a literal male gaze as the General orders Tanja to strip down [to prove she isn't a hired assassin come to get him] and both he and the camera leer at her body. Perhaps appropriately, it is one of the only times in the film where the General behaves like a villain.
Purposefully keeping the General without a name comes off as cutesy, which I don't think was the intended purpose.
This is one of those films where British accents stand in for foreign ones, which I usually have no problem with, but it creates a strange disconnect. The actors come off as tourists in the civil war backdrop of the story. It actually took me a while to realize that the General wasn't hiding out in a small British town, which screwed with the stakes of his precarious situation.
An Ordinary Man eventually becomes a redemption story. But should someone who has done the things the film tells be able to find redemption? Should the character be relatable or light hearted? If the film were more dramatically dynamic or serious in its tone, perhaps there could be some sort of profound arc.
As the film moves into its second half, after specific character revelations change the dynamic between the core relationship, it becomes strangely stale. While the General and Tanja's introduction may have been problematic, there was a narrative spark to watching these two disparate characters build a relationship. An Ordinary Man becomes less entertaining as it tries to have more resonance.