In Brad Silberling’s An Ordinary Man, Ben Kingsley plays an infamous Serbian ex-military commander who, contrary to the film’s title, has led a pretty extraordinary life. The man known only as the General (Ben Kingsley) lives in hiding from international authorities who want to capture him and put him on trial for war crimes committed during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Protected by secret handlers still devoted to the nationalist cause, the General is periodically shuttled from one Belgrade safe house to the next by his driver (Peter Serafinowicz). Though locals occasionally recognize him and treat him as a hero, the once-powerful General is now isolated and lonely, reduced to complaining about the quality of vegetables at the corner store.
So when he finds that his latest hideout comes complete with a pretty young maid, Tanja (Hera Hilmar), it’s no surprise that the General latches onto her tightly, peppering her with invasive personal questions, captiously critiquing her housekeeping abilities, and forcing her to endure his constant self-important nattering. The General adopts the shy, withholding Tanja as something of a personal project, attempting to open her up to the world while also forcing her to conform to his reactionary conceptions of how a woman should behave. What he doesn’t know is that Tanja’s not really a maid at all, but rather an agent tasked with keeping the General out of trouble.
That twist, which is revealed about midway through An Ordinary Man, somewhat deepens Hilmar’s character, but the young woman still remains a frustratingly opaque presence. Silberling is really only interested in the General, and that’s a problem because, with his high-flown dialogue and muddy emotional arc, the man is never remotely convincing as a human being. Played by Kingsley with an arch imperiousness that frequently edges over into outright scenery-chewing, the General comes off as affected and artificial throughout the film, a purely writerly conception.
It doesn’t help matters that while the film was shot in Serbia, it feels almost completely divorced from the culture of the region, lending the film an oddly unspecific sense of place; the milieu is so ill-defined, and its history painted in such broad strokes, that the film might as well be set in Freedonia. Certainly, Silberling envisions his story as a broadly human one, as applicable to World War II or the Rwandan civil war as it is to the Balkans. But even so, it’s not clear what the director is trying to say here. Near the end of the film, the General’s veil drops, and we learn that he does in fact have some human emotions lurking underneath all that arrogant swagger. Yes, deep down, even brutal war criminals like the General are people too. But while that’s certainly true, An Ordinary Man never gives us any reason why we should care.