The Best Foreign Film Oscar nominated Swedish film A Man Called Ove is an unabashed, unashamed crowd pleaser that will send audiences home with a smile on their face and a few tears in their eyes, but it’s also an expertly constructed character piece that earns every bit of sentimentality honestly through the hard work of everyone in front of and behind the camera. Some critics like to label things as “crowd pleasing” as a backhanded knock against it, but the latest film from writer-director Hannes Holm wears the label proudly and triumphantly. It’s hard not to be moved by A Man Called Ove, and it isn’t trying too hard to make the viewer feel an emotional attachment to its titular curmudgeon. It’s as good as these types of films tend to get, and not just a film that your parents or grandparents will enjoy while you squirm through its entirety.
Adapted from novelist Fredrik Backman’s book of the same name, A Man Called Ove looks in on the life and times of 59 year old codger Ove Lindahl (Rolf Lassgård). A somewhat recent widower and all around tough cookie, Ove wakes up every morning and traipses around his suburban gated community like he owns the place. The former head of the local condo association, Ove makes his rounds every morning, chastising dog owners for letting their pets pee everywhere, bike owners for leaving their vehicles in the wrong place, and jotting down the license plates of anyone who parks crookedly. Although he seems to thrive on the anger and contempt he feels for his neighbours, he’d rather be dead; trying numerous times to unsuccessfully commit suicide. One day towards what he hopes is the end of his life, a pregnant Persian woman named Parvaneh (Bahar Pars) and her family move in across the street. Ove naturally hates her from the jump, but he at least admires her more than most of his other neighbours; probably because they have similarly brash personalities and neither suffers fools. Just when Ove needs it the most, he finds a friend and confidant in Parvaneh just as he felt like his life was over.
A Man Called Ove certainly starts in the same place as similar grumpy old man redemption stories like Gran Torino and As Good as It Gets, but after the initial set-up, Holm’s story begins to branch outward in unexpected, poignant ways. With each passing suicide attempt, Ove gets transported back to formative, often traumatic moments in his life that helped to shape the man he has become. The flashbacks (where Ove is played by Filip Berg as a younger man) looks at Ove’s relationship to his father (Stefan Gödicke), his wife (Ida Engvoll), the former friend who took over the condo board (Börje Lundberg), and various authority figures throughout his life that caused him a great deal of mental anguish and anger.
While the idea of telling someone’s story through the use of suicidal flashbacks could have been exploitative and in poor taste, they create the kind of sympathy that Ove needs for the audience to care for him. Through these carefully constructed moments that rhyme perfectly with what’s going on in Ove’s present day crisis, Holm and underrated veteran Swedish cinematographer Göran Hallberg vividly paint a picture of a man who has unwittingly become the one thing he spent most of his life trying to avoid. It’s a film about how people can become hardened by life and the defining moments that can trigger people into feeling awful about the world around them. When we learn about the things that set Ove off and the reasons behind them, the old man’s actions are still unconscionable to some degree, but mostly just come across as unhealthy pleas for help buried under an angry exterior. It also unexpectedly and pleasantly builds to something I didn’t expect: a plea for accessibility and compassion towards those with physical medical needs.
Through this structure, Holm has created a sturdy, well paced story on which the performances can form and breathe naturally. Although Holm’s film has also been nominated for its subtle, well crafted make-up effects, those tricks can only take the cast so far. Part of what makes Holm’s work here such a delight is the chemistry shown between Lassgård and Pars. Neither actor handles the interactions between these strong willed characters like sparring matches to be won or lost, but as tentative conversations between someone afraid of opening up and a like minded borderline cynic willing to lend an ear. Their chemistry defies most clichés that have been established for these kinds of genre pictures, and lends the film the extra sense of realism needed to make its final revelations about Ove’s sadness all the more palpable.
The best thing that I can say about A Man Called Ove is that it’s effective in its aims to move the viewer to heightened emotions without sacrificing entertainment value or becoming manipulative. It’s cinematic comfort food in a lot of respects, but what Holm dishes out hits the spot splendidly.
A Man Called Ove opens exclusively at Cineplex Varsity in Toronto on Friday, February 17. It expands to select cities across Canada in the coming weeks.
Check out the trailer for A Man Called Ove: