After 12 years in prison, life doesn’t seem so bad for the physically imposing yet seemingly docile Ulrik (Stellan Skarsgard). His longtime friend and former crime boss Rune (Bjørn Floberg) has set him up with a place to live and a job as a mechanic. So what if his repulsive landlady is overly hostile when she’s not making sexual advances at him and the owner of the shop where he works talks to the point of exhaustion without ever stopping to listen?
Things are mostly looking up. A visit to his ex-wife isn’t entirely unpleasant, even if she forbids him to see their now adult son. And when Ulrik visits his son anyway that’s also not completely disastrous, even though he lies to his pregnant fiancee about his father’s identity. Ulrik is a man who takes the meager offerings life hands him in stride. He’s always polite and grateful, so it makes sense that middle-aged women starved for attention have a habit of throwing themselves at him.
But when Rune demands Ulrik kill the man whose testimony led to the murder conviction, he is conflicted. Revenge is a game young people play, and he’s just not that person any more. His life is good, if not quite happy. But he’s happy with good; it’s good enough. Will he stand up to one of his oldest friends at the possible risk of his own safety, or will he allow himself to be pressured into murder?
While this may all sound like an odd description for what is primarily a comedy, “A Somewhat Gentle Man” is, in fact, a very funny movie. It mines big laughs from uncomfortable social interactions, awkward sexual encounters, and eccentric but realistic personalities. It recognizes the humor inherent in situations where people are at their most vulnerable, and it feels like the Norwegian cousin to the Alexander Payne/Jim Taylor collaborations such as “About Schmidt” and “Citizen Ruth.”
It’s also extremely well paced, which can be a struggle for this type of comedy. Because the character of Ulrik is often sedentary, it gains the most dramatic traction from people attempting to exert their will upon him or from the carefully handled revelation of his past. Thankfully, this information is conveyed in ways that feel very natural to the characters and situations and less like a screenwriter trying to shoehorn in every last bit of backstory. In fact, the requisite exposition in “A Somewhat Gentle Man” is handled so deftly its screenplay (by Kim Fupz Aakeson) could be studied for its subtlety.
With the sheer volume of his supporting roles in English language films such as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, it’s extremely easy to take the excellent work Stellan Skarsgard does for granted. He’s the type of actor who disappears into roles, and his performance here is no exception. He’s not acting, he simply is Ulrik. The rest of the cast also all turn in excellent performances that play off of Skarsgard and each other perfectly.
The direction by Hans Petter Moland is also commendable for keeping everything suitably restrained and never succumbing to the temptation to allow punchlines to overwhelm the story. This is actually the third collaboration between director and star, with the Swedish Skarsgard and Norwegian Moland previously collaborating on “Zero Kelvin” in 1995 and “Aberdeen” in 2000. If this pattern continues, look for their next collaboration in 2030.
The best compliment that I can give “A Somewhat Gentle Man” is that it’s the type of movie that draws you in, that sticks with you, and that makes you want to explore the oeuvre of the people behind it. You can’t help but have affection for the characters, regardless of their past. So far this is the best comedy of 2010, in any language.