What do you do when you’re recovering at home from a medical test, still under the influence of a mild sedative, and have stupidly left your Kindle at the office?
If you’re me (which is admittedly doubtful) you go to Netflix and stream a Norwegian movie you’ve heard interesting things about. That movie was A Somewhat Gentle Man, directed by Hans Petter Moland and starring Swedish actor Stellan Starsgård (in a marvelously underacted performance).
Titled En Ganske Snill Mann in Norwegian (I’d have translated it A Rather Nice Man myself, but this translation is good), A Somewhat Gentle Man was marketed as a “hilarious” comedy according to the DVD box. I think it’s more of a quirky, updated Noir, including large doses of black humor. Instead of the angular shadows of classic Noir, this is a Film Gris. The whole world of Ulrik, the film’s antihero, is gray, from the gray Norwegian winter sky, to the gray concrete buildings of Oslo’s seedier side, to the gray basement room he rents (almost indistinguishable from the prison cell from which he’s just been released) to his gray clothing and gray hair. Occasional flashes of color, especially red, compel the eye and signal moments of hope in his life.
Freshly released after 12 years’ incarceration for murder, Ulrik quickly reunites with his old underworld buddies. But he’s not eager to go along with their plan for him, which primarily involves his killing the man whose testimony got him convicted. Basically he wants a quiet life, to work as a mechanic and avoid confrontations (he’s almost quintessentially Norwegian in this). Most of all he wants to reconnect with his son, who is now living with a pregnant girlfriend who has no wish to have a felon grandfather involved in her coming child’s life.
As is expected in such stories, sex is a complicating issue. Ulrik’s sexual encounters are relatively explicit, and possibly the least titillating you’ll ever see on film. The whole movie has a gritty, realistic look. The women generally aren’t very beautiful, and Ulrik’s participation is as often as not merely dutiful, to avoid giving offense. His old and ugly landlady acts as if she’s doing him a favor. He’s more enthusiastic about coupling with the secretary at the garage, from whom he’s been warned off by the owner (who speaks only in paragraphs, and very fast).
In all these relations Ulrik takes a passive role, until his refusal to murder the “snitch” for his gangster buddies forces him to take personal initiative, which—not surprising in a modern film—brings about what we’re meant to regard as a happy resolution. I share James Bowman of The American Spectator‘s skepticism about the moral congruity of the ending.
Do I recommend the movie? Not generally. Certainly not to younger viewers, or to anyone offended by foul language, nudity and sex scenes (especially unappealing nudity and sex), or violence. Still, if you care for this sort of thing, and are interesting in seeing a quirky take on classic themes, A Somewhat Gentle Man contains much of interest.