A Man Called Ove is a film that desperately wants to please its audience. An adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s novel of the same name, the film fits neatly into that genre loosely definable as ‘grumpy old man turns good by virtue of some unexpected relationship’ – a category so tonally diverse as to encompass everything from Up! to Gran Torino. Hannes Holm directed and wrote the screenplay to this Swedish crowd-pleaser, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the most recent Oscars. Any viewer will spot the film’s emotional cogs spinning wildly. The picture might nag you and ask you to love it, but that doesn’t stop it from having a genuine, if fleeting, charm.
The film follows Ove (Rolf Lassgård) as he emerges from his self-imposed social isolation. Ove is stubborn, hard-nosed and practical. He’s worked at the local railway station for over forty years, and his only meaningful relationships in the world have vanished. His recently deceased wife Sonja was his antithesis: a beloved schoolteacher, so lively and kind that she brought a harmony to Ove’s life he never would have otherwise captured.
Ove rails against any violation of his sense of order: from dropped cigarette butts to mischievous clowns. This initially includes his newly arrived neighbours, a family who eventually end his spiteful disenchantment with the world. Ove’s main target, though, are the authorities – or, as he calls them, those ‘men in white shirts’ (the painful reasons behind this are eventually made clear). His revulsion with their bureaucratic impertinence and ‘know better’ attitudes is, of course, inescapably prescient in an era filled with pseudo-sociological bullshit analysis of ‘angry white men’. Viewers might note this film, which prominently features an Iranian character (Bahar Pars plays his neighbour Parvaneh), is being released so soon after the U.S President spoke of Sweden’s ‘migrant crisis’. Ove’s optimism provides the same resolution to these broader social conflicts as it does to Ove’s personal conflict, emphasising the importance of communication and empathy.
Lassgård’s performance as the present day Ove is exactly suited to the role. Yet, it’s Filip Berg as the young Ove in the film’s flashbacks, who gives the rest of the story an emotional lucidity. His fresh face and hopeless innocence makes a perfect match to Ida Envgoll’s radiance as Sonja. The two of them, of course, meet by chance on a train – the loveliest of such encounters to appear on Australian screens since the release of Julieta.
The film’s emotional pleasures, unfortunately, aren’t matched by thoughtful content. An overly long suicide gag at the beginning of the film isn’t as funny as it thinks. The film’s wall-to-wall use of narration over Ove’s flashbacks is also mismanaged. The technique is initially used so that Ove can narrate his tragic backstory to the viewer (even though the viewer isn’t being offered any insight they can’t deduce from looking at the screen); it’s later used when Ove tells his neighbour Parvaneh the details of his wife’s death. It only makes sense in the latter scenario; here it complements Ove’s emotional breakthrough (he’s finally found someone he can talk to!) and brings you inside the unfolding relationship between two characters. The ill-judged application of voiceover might be dismissed as trivial, but it’s yet another example of the clumsiness that marks so many literary adaptations.
A Man Called Ove treads ground that the screen has covered many times before. This isn’t a great film, but it’s one you can let yourself enjoy.
A Man Called Ove is now showing in cinemas.