Director: Hannes Holm
Cast: Rolf Lassgård, Bahar Pars, Filip Berg, Ida Engvoll
Running time: 116 minutes
Six months after losing his beloved wife Sonja (Engvoll) to cancer, 59-year old Ove Lindahl (Lassgård) wants to end it all and join her in the afterlife. His various attempts to do so, however, are constantly thwarted by the inconvenience of his neighbours and flashbacks to his younger, happier days.
If you, like me, are unfamiliar with Fredrik Backman’s 2012 bestseller, then it may come as quite a surprise to you, as it did to me, that Hannes Holm’s adaptation, which uses suicide as a structural device, is in fact a black comedy – a Best Foreign Language Oscar nominated black comedy I might add. And deservedly so, because A Man Called Ove is a delightfully funny, heart-warming, touching tale of one man’s gradual reconnection with the life that had previously betrayed him.
Well, in truth, this is actually a tale of two men – both with the name Ove. The first is an ageing, grumpy, six-foot-four Swedish mountain of rage. Finding any reason he can to rant and bellow, and the self-elected enforcer of his neighbourhood’s pedantic bylaws (strictly no driving, no parking, and basically no fun whatsoever), Ove is categorically loathsome to everyone he comes into contact with. Living alone and made redundant from his job of 43 years, with only a shovel to show for it, his life is little more than routine, his day occasionally speckled with painful reminders of his loneliness. His only solace is found in his regular visits to the grave of his late wife, where his complaints about the alien world he now finds himself in are spliced together with his promises of imminent reunion. And it is through his numerous attempts to hang, shoot or poison himself that we are introduced to the second Ove.
Existing only in flashback, the younger Ove (Berg), by contrast, is shy, socially awkward, but, crucially, always good-natured. Although used sparingly by Holm, such memories often run the risk of being overly melodramatic, but are effective in establishing Ove’s two lifelong loves (Sonja and Saabs – the latter used neatly to indicate the film’s timeline), as well as earning Ove a place in the audience’s good books with his stoic demeanour and bumbling expressions of love. But the elderly Ove’s suicide-induced flashbacks are perhaps most important in recounting the numerous tragedies that have ultimately shaped him into the quintessential irritable old man he has become; one who has had enough of a life that hasn’t had enough of him quite yet.
And that new lease of life that inevitably and predictably arrives comes almost exclusively in the form of the plucky, sassy neighbour Parvaneh (Pars). She is the perfect foil to Ove’s repeated outbursts and slowly chips away at his gruff exterior to become the vital figure of companionship he’s been so lacking. While Sonja might well be the centre piece to Ove’s entire existence, she (and Engvoll) are disappointingly side-lined to little more than a series of warming smiles during various life events and period settings. And so, perhaps unexpectedly, it is Pars’ character who is given much more narrative weighting and a much more satisfying character study here. Lassgård is mightily impressive in bringing a difficult balancing act to the titular character. Competently combining an intimidating presence and hatred for everything with a plausible underlying fragility and vulnerability, Ove soon becomes that odd contradiction of someone we want to both heckle and hug simultaneously.
For all his stellar work in the build-up, it is somewhat of a shame, however, that Holm rushes the film’s final act. Loose ends are tied up all too abruptly and neatly; one character, seemingly out of nowhere, quickly adopts the role of comic-book villain, and gets his comeuppance through revelations that appear to have been plucked out of thin air. By the final frames, the melodrama has settled in once again, but for all the laughs and heartbreak that have brought us to such moments, it can be forgiven.
A skilfully packaged film wrapped in comic paper and covered in emotional ribbons, A Man Called Ove, for the most part, is a brilliantly patient, brilliantly pitched work of… well, brilliance.