Brad Silberling’s An Ordinary Man is misleadingly titled. As played by Oscar®️-winner Ben Kingsley, the main character may fascinate and repel, but he certainly isn’t ordinary. Kingsley’s performance is remarkable, although “An Ordinary Man” is a duet, played between the Oscar winner and Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar. Their characters are identified only as “The General” and “The Maid,” which foreshadows a script that’s more about abstractions than realism. There’s something distinctly half-finished feeling about An Ordinary Man, although the actors certainly give this exercise everything they have.
Kingsley is shuffled from hideout to hideout to prevent being prosecuted for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Not only does the script not deny his guilt, an onscreen title lists the crimes he apparently committed as part of “ethnic cleansing.” The General likes to sneak out of his safe houses in Belgrade to buy fresh peppers, much to the chagrin of his handler (Peter Serafinowicz). To many of the locals, he’s a folk hero. Early in the film, he demonstrates that he’s still a force to be reckoned with by knocking out a thug in the middle of robbing a grocery store. This sort of stunt only feeds his legend.
Their first meeting is awkward, even arch. While settling into his latest hideout, Kingsley’s General hears a sound at the door and holds the person who enters, Hilmar, at gunpoint and forces her to strip naked, ostensibly to ensure she isn’t armed. Clearly the “Me Too” movement hasn’t gained traction here. She convinces him that she was a house cleaner for the prior tenant, and he decides to keep her on. It perhaps says a great deal about Hilmar’s thespian gifts that she is actually able to sell this situation to the audience.
Initially the General makes grandiose pronouncements as “I am everywhere and nowhere, I am myth” and “I will never hide and I will never be taken,” which might lead the viewer to wonder whether his Prozac prescription needs adjusting. Eventually he starts to loosen up around the young woman, to the point of creepiness – he actually asks her when she first menstruated. Still the two become friendly, venturing out to shop, talking about their lives, and dancing.
Kingsley and Hilmar have an easy onscreen chemistry and their scenes do play with an almost musical harmony and rhythm. Kingsley is fiery, charismatic. Hilmar, wisely, underplays by comparison. If only the screenplay was worthy of of their gifts and efforts. The script, written by director Silberling, explains too little and is content to take no moral stance whatsoever. Silberling, best-known as a TV director and producer (he did direct the features Casper and Land of the Lost), frankly seems out of his depth with this type of material.
If the General has any sense of guilt or remorse for his crimes, we don’t see it on screen. In this regard it would bear noting that Serbian war crimes in the nineties against the civilian Croat population included attempted genocide, torture and large scale, systematic rape. This sort of behavior does constitute war crimes and it does make you a bad person. If your main character is going to be accused of this sort of thing, you can’t treat it like an episode of juvenile shoplifting. This is not just a matter of conventional morality – it’s common sense storytelling. These are crimes that scar the psyche, scorch the soul and merit damnation. You can’t just shrug that sort of thing off. Leon Uris’ QB VII and Robert Shaw’s superb The Man in the Glass Booth got that. An Ordinary Man seems to think it does, but one brief scene where the main character has a nightmare not shared with the audience just doesn’t cut it.
The other star of the show is director of photography Magdalena Gorka, who gets substantial mileage the shadowy streets of Belgrade. In the hands of a more mature filmmaker, one who was willing to look his protagonist’s dark past in the face, they might have been a metaphor. That’s just one of many opportunities An Ordinary Man sadly misses.