Comedy is one of those strange and elusive phenomena that troubles even the most sensitive critical connoisseurs. It is all the more difficult to capture and sustain in a feature length film, and many have tried and failed. Luckily for us, Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland has managed to create a true comedic gem with his A Somewhat Gentle Man(En ganske snill mann, 2010).
The somewhat gentle man in question is Ulrik (Stellan Skarsgård), a bedraggled looking murderer who has served twelve years in a penitentiary and is now free. The problem is that Ulrik is a nice man – perhaps even a sweet man, but even though he wants desperately to move on, he tends to attract trouble. These hindrances come in the forms of his old boss Jensen (Bjørn Floberg), his new boss Sven (Bjørn Sundquist), and more sex-offering women than he can possibly handle.
When Jensen demands that Ulrik settle accounts by pulling off one last murder, Ulrik must decide if he can manage this task without jeopardizing family, position and the one woman he loves.
What separates A Somewhat Gentle Man from films drowning in the clichés of comedy-hell is its simplicity. That and a strong script, immensely talented actors, and a director that focuses on subtle details and knows what he’s doing.
First and foremost, Moland’s characters play their roles deadly seriously, and that’s what makes them hilarious. Much like the British comedy of John Cleese and his
Monty Python gang, Skarsgård and company never try to be funny, and if anything, play their roles almost tragically. Case in point, Sundquist’s Sven, who speaks in monotonous soliloquies, even in the throes of heart failure. Another stunning character is Karen Margrethe, magnificently portrayed by Jorunn Kjellsby. Frumpily attired in rolled down stockings and dresses far too tiny for her bulky frame, the sex-starved Karen entices Ulrik with gourmet meals, a working television and wifely banter. Then when he’s comfortably settled in, she hikes up her dress, lies down flat and demands service.
What make these sessions so sidesplittingly hysterical is Kjellsby’s breaking into religious tirades when consumed by passion. Then when the lovemaking is abruptly ended – usually in a matter of seconds – she pats Ulrik on the back and they resume watching television while he finishes dinner. Interestingly, most of Ulrik’s amorous adventures seem to annoyingly disrupt his meals, with the exception of Merete (Jannike Kruse), the woman who understands him best.
In terms of characters, Moland is much like the great Alfred Hitchcock. No actor is more important than any other in A Somewhat Gentle Man, and no character can be considered minor. In spite of this, the film is not entirely character-driven because of the strength of Kim Fupz Aakeson’s screenplay. Adding to the movie’s credibility, are the complete accuracy and timing of subtitles. Moland takes great pains with subtle nuances, such as Karen’s flick of her hair when she jealously sets sights on her man. Furthermore, his tragicomedy is intelligent, with every aspect of plot and structure geared toward provocative thought. In the end we ask if people can change for the better, and what that really means? Laughter may be an antidote to our troubled times but as A Somewhat Gentle Man shows, true comedy is a very serious business.
Amy R. Handler is a Boston-based film-maker, film scholar, writer and critic.