A Man Called Ove

March 31, 2017
Rolf Lassgård in 'A Man Called Ove' (2015)
Rolf Lassgård in 'A Man Called Ove' (2015)

“You don’t need to put Christmas into everything,” complains Ove, whose life story has become a surprising worldwide hit. A Man Called Ove is unashamedly sentimental but this doesn’t seem to be a problem for most cinema-goers. Earlier this year, Ove earned Sweden an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Being part of the minority that feels phobic about sentimentality, I’ll admit Ove wasn’t my first choice for this week, as I imagined Daniel Espinosa’s sci-fi thriller, Life, would present more substantial fare. Alas, there are horror films and horrible films – and Life falls into the latter category. The movie reads like a mash-up of Alien and Gravity, without any of the flair and intelligence.

Life is one of those rare films that seems devoid of meaning. Whereas most science fiction or horror has a  clear moral framework, in this instance it’s difficult to discern any point to the carnage beyond the creaky, B movie cliché that scientists shouldn’t meddle in the great Unknown. Needless to say, if this logic were applied there would be no scientific progress whatsoever.

It suddenly became apparent that in the cinema there are worse sins than sentimentality. Confronted with a movie that felt sadistic and nasty, A Man Called Ove began to resemble a beacon of humanist profundity.

In the tactic of relating the lead character’s life history through extended flashbacks, Ove resembles another Swedish film of recent vintage, The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared (2103).

In its basic structure, Ove is an example of a sub-genre that might be called ‘the curmudgeon with a heart of gold’. One thinks of Gran Torino, or more recently, St. Vincent.

Hannes Holm’s film is an adaptation of a best-selling novel by Fredrik Backman, which has also gathered popularity in an English-language translation. The reason is obvious: Ove, the archetypal grumpy old man, is a universally recognisable figure. We’ve all met an Ove, or can discern aspects of him in ourselves.

The film begins with Ove, played convincingly by Rolf Lassgård, having an argument at the supermarket over a two-for-one offer of a bunch of flowers. The flowers are for his late wife, Sonja, whom he visits every day, talking to her tombstone as if it were a telephone line to Heaven. In the following scene he is laid off from the job he has performed loyally for 43 years. We get the message that Ove is both lonely, and at a loose end.

He fills his time, and his need for order, by making daily inspections of the housing estate where he lives. He picks up cigarette butts, checks gates and locks, and makes sure residents and guests are obeying the rules. Ove, who can’t help “playing the policeman”, is disenchanted with the modern world and uniformly rude to anyone who crosses his path.

“Does no-one work these days?” he exclaims. He hates bureaucrats, whom he refers to as “white shirt scum”. He’s particularly cross about the fashion for discussing things over lunch, which he sees as a sign of creeping decadence. “Soon everyone in the country will be busy having lunch!”

Missing his wife and fed up with his existence, Ove sets out to commit suicide. He puts on his suit and tie, and attaches a noose to a ceiling hook. He is interrupted, however, by the arrival of noisy new neighbours. It’s a comic motif in the story that Ove’s every attempt at ending it all will be interrupted. We know this instinctively, with the only mystery being the nature of the interruptions.

In those moments when his life flashes before his eyes we learn about Ove’s lonely childhood, and his strict sense of right and wrong. He is a simple, practical man who loves building and fixing things, or tinkering with engines. His greatest passion, apart from his wife, is for the Saab, which he sees as the supreme achievement of automotive art.

The flashbacks introduce us to Sonja (Ida Engvoll) a vivacious, intelligent woman who saw the good in Ove and brought him out of his shell. Upon her death he has retreated back into himself, feeling nothing but pain and frustration.

The predictable plot development is that Ove is dragged back into the world by his new neighbour, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), an Iranian woman married to an affable but impractical Swede (Tobias Almborg). The couple already have two small daughters, and Parveneh is heavily pregnant with number three.

Despite his best attempts to be gruff and mean to the newcomers, Ove’s defences are gradually beaten down and his true personality emerges. It turns out that he loves children, loves animals, and likes nothing better than doing people a good turn.

One could see this coming from the very first scene. The pleasure of the story consists of the slow unfolding of the inevitable, and the committed performances of the cast. There’s a topical refinement in Parveneh being an Iranian refugee who charms a narrow-minded Swedish nationalist. It’s a plea for us to recognise our shared humanity, regardless of age and ethnicity. Although the world may be fiercely divided on these issues we can still find solace at the movies.

A Man Called Ove
Directed by Hannes Holm
Written by Hannes Holm, after a novel by Fredrik Backman
Starring Rolf Lassgård, Bahar Pars, Filip Berg, Ida Engvoll, Tobias Almborg, Las Wiljergård, Chatarina Larsson, Börje Lundberg
Sweden, rated M, 116 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 1st April, 2017.