At the beginning of Hannes Holm’s A Man Called Ove, the titular protagonist (played by Rolf Lassgård) is let go from his job. An elderly widow, he has few other reasons to get up in the morning, so he decides to join his wife in death—by stepping into a noose. It’s only when he becomes irked by a family moving in next door and making a lot of noise that Ove decides he’ll delay his suicide until he’s told off his obnoxious new neighbours.
This kind of bittersweet sense humour, an interplay between misery and comedy, is at the heart of Holm’s script, based on the popular novel by Swedish author Fredrik Backman. It’s a tone he handles well, balancing the sentimental moments in the plot with its curmudgeonly, misanthropic protagonist. He’s so successful, in fact, that it’s easy to forgive the film for its awfully familiar story.
After meeting the new neighbours who flout his rules, Ove strikes up an unlikely companionship with Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), the Iranian wife and mother of two, who counters Ove’s misery with an upbeat disposition and feisty temper. Cue the typical story beats of Ove at first resisting Parvaneh’s kindness, before he’s teaching her to drive, looking after the kids, and delaying his suicide a little more every day, until he finally has something to live for.
The present day story is intercut with Ove’s tragic coming of age (the young Ove is predominantly played by Filip Berg) in which he loses a mother, then a father, seeing no point in anything until he meets his wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll), with whom he shares his happiest memories.
It’s a frustratingly formulaic story that becomes endearingly familiar because the tale is filmed so damned well. As Ove, Lassgård is a hulking figure, awkwardly large in the camera’s tight frame. The look of a man who has essentially checked out of life is etched into his face as deeply as it would be on a real person. His performance is expertly complimented by Pars, as she stubbornly refuses to give up on an old man almost everybody can’t stand to be around. Though her role is largely to support Lassgård, she weaves around the script’s limitations and portrays a complex character.
Holm is an accomplished director tasked with showing audiences something they’ve likely seen before. It’s like an expert chef serving up a toasted sandwich: it’s not the most inspiring of dishes, but you can be sure the chef is going to do something pretty remarkable with it.
Tom Bensley is a freelance writer in Melbourne who reviews anything he attends, watches or reads. It’s a compulsion, really. Follow him @TomAliceBensley.
A Man Called Ove is in cinemas now.
Disclosure: The Plus Ones were invited guests of Ned & Co.
Image Credit: IMDb.