A widower rediscovers life

A Man Called Ove
Written and directed by Hannes Holm, based on a book by Fredrik Backman
116 minutes, rated M
4 stars

You have to love a bloke who’s fighting his own personal viking wars all the time, one at a time. Ove (pronounced Oo-vay) is 59 years old and a stickler for the rules. He does his ‘rounds’ early each morning in the modest 60’s-era townhouse co-operative where he lives, somewhere in Sweden. He picks up cigarette butts, notes the licence plates of cars improperly parked, sneers at a cat that won’t go away and yells at a woman whose dog pisses on his lawn every day.

When Ove buys a bunch of flowers in the supermarket, he expects the two-for-one price, even if he only buys one bunch. The flowers are for his beloved wife Sonja, whose grave he visits daily. ‘This is a one-off,’ he tells her headstone, when he turns up with two bunches. ‘I’ll see you shortly’.

We can see where he’s headed before we see the noose in his lounge room. The appalling managers at the railyard tell him they have a proposition, but they just want to get rid of him after 43 years of loyal service. He saves them the trouble and walks out. Nothing in this ghastly modern world surprises him, except perhaps goodness and kindness, which keep invading his lonely vigil of grief and anger.

A Man called Ove was the Swedish nomination for best foreign language film at the Oscars this year and it’s a dour but likeable combination of humour and pathos, mixed with rage. Veteran dramatic actor Rolf Lassgard so inhabits the role of Ove as to make it seem like documentary. Lassgard never tries to get a laugh; indeed, Ove can’t see anything that’s funny. When the noose breaks on his second try, he storms back to the hardware shop: what kind of crap are you selling here? ‘What were you trying to use it for,’ asks the puzzled sales girl through her chewing-gum.

Hannes Holm is an experienced writer-director, but this project came with a warning. The book by columnist Fredrik Backman, published in 2012, was a resounding success, which puts high expectations on any film adaptation. I’m not sure if it’s from the book, but one of the best decisions in the film is to show Ove’s early life as a series of flashbacks that he experiences while trying to end his own life – through various means. This puts a block on a tendency towards sentimentalism in the soundtrack.

In the first of these, we meet a small boy whose father believed passionately in the goodness of engines and the quality of a Saab motor car; we see the boy grow into an awkward but bright young man (Filip Berg) who shares his father’s passions and isolation, not mention his disdain for the Volvo. On a train, he meets a young trainee teacher, Sonja (Ida Engvoll), as vivacious and generous as he is withdrawn and unconfident. That’s a hard role to fill, because she has to be so wonderful as to explain the terrible hole her death leaves in Ove’s life. Ida Engvoll does a superb job at that – but she’s not the only significant female character. The other is Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), an Iranian neighbour, who has a knack of disturbing Ove every time he gets the noose around his neck. She and her useless Swedish husband Patrick (Tobias Almborg) arrive in the house next door with a clang and two kids. Ove looses off a mouthful of abuse; Parvaneh just smiles and steams ahead into his life, as good women sometimes do.

The film came out in late 2015 in Sweden and set new records, partly because the book had already laid the groundwork. Arriving at the other end of the world, we have no such expectations, which is good. The freshness of Ove’s epic grumpiness presents an interesting question: do grumpy old men get grumpy in the same way all over the world, or is it just him and me? Hannes Holm builds this into something much bigger, giving the shoddiness of modern life a good slap, but he does it with an emotional eye-dropper rather than a paint brush. Just as well. The eye-dropper already packs a punch.