London 2010: A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN Review

A farcical comic drama form Norway, Hans Petter Moland's A Somewhat Gentle Man stars Stellan Skarsgard as Ulrik, released from jail after a lengthy sentence for killing the man who slept with his wife. Re-entering the free world with more than a little reluctance Ulrik is torn between patching his personal life back together and rejoining his aging criminal pals Jensen (Bjorn Floberg) and Rolf (Gard B. Eidsvold) to take revenge on the man who testified against him.

Set in a desolate and grim neighbourhood bordering a major road route, this is Norway at its most grim and realist. The story, however, is far from realistic with a streak of hilarious absurdist humour running throughout. Slowly paced and scripted with some of the most wonderful deadpan humour, the film is populated by down-on-their-luck Norwegians, often deluded about the reality of their own existence. Sven (Bjorn Sundguist), the owner of the garage where Ulrik is granted a mechanic's job, is excessively concerned with manning his business despite barely a trickle of motors passing through. Jensen is an anachronism, an aging minor gangster outgunned and out-manoeuvered by the current crop of pan-European criminals. With his other henchmen either too ill or too dead to run with him, he's stuck with the inept Rolf - a man with a role limited to being the butt of Jensen's dubious humour and growing frustrations. There's also the battered wife and garage secretary, Wenche (Kjersti Holmen), and Sven's horny ex-wife, Karen Margrethe (Jorunn Kjellsby). Whilst these characters are hardly convincing as 'real' people they most certainly populate the same skewed tragi-comic world. Deliberately ponderous, timing is key, with pauses and subtle expressions often delivering the punchlines.

All flawed, and most lacking intelligence, Ulrik navigates these characters with a mixture of baffled astonishment and resignation, accepting improbable sexual encounters with a dulled sense of necessity. Whilst all of this is undoubtedly amusing - there are also some running gags involving Ulrik being fed (at a price) and not able to smoke anywhere - it's also a surprisingly moving story. Although not exactly likeable, it's hard not to empathize with our 'hero' as he tentatively attempts to reconnect with his now grown-up son. Distanced from the misfits Ulrik spends his days (and nights) with, Geir (Jan Gunnar Roise) leads an altogether more coventional existence which puts our hero's own plight into stark contrast.

Though at face value an odd comparison, there's much in common with Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch - the emotional wallop coming from men terribly out of their time, unable to adjust to a new world. With a wry script and universally superb performances A Somewhat Gentle Man (the emphasis is very ironically on 'somewhat') is unsentimental yet sad but, ultimately, uplifting. It's also damn funny.
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