Anyone who has read Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel, about “the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s torch”, will know exactly what to expect from Hannes Holm’s film adaptation, an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Everyone else should brace themselves for a blackly comic film that uses the unlikely device of multiple suicide attempts as a framework upon which to build, in flashback, the story of a man’s life, most notably the tragedies that made him the bitter, middle-aged busybody he is today.
A strong contender for feel-good film of the year.
Fifty-nine-year-old Ove (pronounced OO-vair) is the kind of obstinate oaf who dislikes strangers on sight, rigidly enforces the pedantic byelaws of his residential block, and once disowned his only friend because he had the temerity to trade his Swedish-made Volvo for a BMW. (Ove himself only ever drives Saabs, and the years are neatly characterised by the changing models, from two-stroke to 9-5, and the film arguably misses a trick by not covering the demise of the veteran Swedish marque.) When we first meet him, a year after Sonja’s (Engvoll) death, Ove has just been made redundant from the job on the railways he has held for 43 years. His parting gift is a spade, “for gardening”, and he might as well have been asked to dig his own grave. Rather than enjoy his retirement, Ove takes it as a cue to hang himself, convinced that his beloved Sonja is waiting for him in the afterlife. But a snapped rope (“You said it was good for all uses!” he barks at the clerk in the DIY store) is just the first of the mishaps that suggest to Ove that, while he may be done with living, life isn’t quite done with him.
As with the source material, the film’s principal challenge is whether such a thoroughly unpleasant individual — like Jack Nicholson’s grumpy writer in As Good As It Gets, only less charming and likeable — can keep the audience in his corner long enough to witness his glacial, yet inevitable, transformation into a sympathetic figure. In this respect, the heavy lifting falls to Rolf Lassgård, who played detective Kurt Wallander in the original Swedish film series. The actor is more than up to the task, using his natural loftiness (he is 6’ 4”) to his advantage, affecting a lumbering walk, dressing like Ned Beatty in Superman, and wittily adding a second finger to Ove’s most aggressive gesture, turning the accusatory “policeman’s torch” into a more threatening pistol.
Filip Berg has a far easier job as the younger Ove, and although there’s a rose-tinted quality to the flashbacks, they are used sparingly, always cutting back to the present whenever the film threatens to drown us in melodramatic syrup — or when we might be missing Ove’s irascible older self too much. The brevity of the flashbacks does have the unfortunate effect of sidelining Sonja, so that although her significance in Ove’s story is abundantly clear, Engvoll is given little more to do than smile beatifically in a succession of 1960s and ’70s fashions. Luckily, Bahar Pars makes up for this inherent narrative weakness as no-nonsense neighbour Parvaneh, who pierces Ove’s hard shell with a home-cooked Persian meal, and provides Ove with the conscience, and the companionship, he has sorely missed since his wife’s death.