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Somewhat Gentle Man, A
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by Jay Seaver

"A rather funny downer."
4 stars

The phrase "returning to the scene of the crime" is generally used during the investigation of a mystery, but if you take a broader view of what the "scene" is, almost every criminal does it eventually. It's just that in many cases, it's after prison, and even if your hometown is filled with the things that got you in trouble in the first place, where else are you going to go? It's a funny situation, somewhere on the border of weird and amusing, at least in this case.

As the movie starts, Ulrik (Stellan Skarsgard) is being released from prison after twelve years, although there's no-one to meet him; everybody seems to have thought it would be later in the week. Still, his former boss Rune Jensen (Bjorn Floberg) helps out some - he finds Ulrik a room to rent and a job as a mechanic. He also points out that Kenny (Henrik Mestad), the man who sold Ulrik out to the cops is still in town, and wouldn't Ulrik like to balance accounts. Honestly, though, all he really wants is to stay out of trouble and maybe reunite with his son Geir (Jan Gunnar Roise).

There have been a lot of movies about people just out of prison, trying to re-enter society, but what A Somewhat Gentle Man does particularly well is show how Ulrik doesn't take even the smallest things for granted after his time "away". There's an unusual lack of cringe-worthy awkwardness to the scenes where Ulrik reunites with his son - it's awkward, certainly, but in a way that says both want it to go well, as opposed to the usual "how is he going to screw it up" vibe. And take some early scenes where Ulrik's new landlady Karen Margrethe (Jorunn Kjellsby) brings a television into his room and hooks it up, followed by him trying to adjust the picture and finally being delighted by what he finds. The normal line might be a snobbish "you're free now, don't waste your time on that", but instead we see a man free to enjoy movies, music, and contests if he wants.

The joy Skarsgard portrays in those scenes is a bit infectious, a welcome counterpoint to the uncertainty he gives Ulrik much of the rest of the time. Ulrik is not a talkative guy, and writer Kim Fupz Aakeson never gives him a speech about what he learned in prison or how he's going to live a better life now, but Skarsgard never makes the character more of an enigma than necessary. His face is often an open book, glowing with pride as he discusses his son, and showing doubt and discomfort as Jensen leads him toward criminal activities. There's a dour professionalism tinged with regret when his darker nature comes out. He's also surprisingly funny - comedy isn't exactly what Skarsgard is known for in his English-language roles, at least - but he gives a double take at every place he can no longer smoke, stammers amusingly when caught between jealous women, and combines with Kjellsby for some of the more memorable comedic sex scenes you'll ever see.

Kjellsby isn't the only one who plays off him with style. Floberg - often partnered with Gard Eidsvold as a comic sidekick - hits just the right note as a criminal who clearly isn't what he once was (or thinks he should be), with just enough edge to the role that, although we maybe don't see him as a present-day threat, there's something about his pettiness that makes him a bit more than a comic villain. Bjorn Sundquist and Jannike Kruse are another interesting pair, as the owner and receptionist at the garage where Ulrik gets his job - there's chemistry between them somewhere between a crush and paternal concern, with Sundquist getting laughs from Sven's tendency to run on while Kruse does a nice job of exposing something odd and tender underneath Merete's initial standoffishness.

Director Hans Petter Moland does a nice job of riding herd over this large cast of characters and Aakeson's script. The movie is, to quote the poster, "a dark feel-good comedy", and Moland does a nice job of navigating the middle road there, making sure that the oddness around Ulrik tilts toward off-kilter rather than zany or outright disturbing. Sometimes the script gets a little muddled - there's a section in the middle that drags a bit, the ending may not catch everyone just right, and Ulrik gets rather more sex than you might expect for someone in his position - but the good bits generally counter that quite well. Moland and Aakeson also do a remarkably good job of gradually revealing characters's pasts and connections without the various revelations winding up more interesting than crucial - it creates detail and understanding without making it be about solving a mystery. The backdrop of a Norwegian winter seems particularly apt, as well, with all the snow that's supposed to be beautiful blackened and twisted by car exhaust and rain.

There's darkness to "A Somewhat Gentle Man", but Moland is able to inject bits of hope into it without making the atmosphere seem simplistic or compromised. It's a surprisingly warm film even when you might expect it to be cold.

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originally posted: 03/03/11 11:30:53
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User Comments

9/03/12 Courtney A great dark comedy from Norway staring Stellen Skarsgård. 4 stars
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  14-Jan-2011 (NR)



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