Bleak realism long has characterized the cinema of Sweden, from the art-house classics of Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries) to more recent, noirish crime stories including The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Sweden's official entry to next year's Academy Awards and winner of several recent film festival awards, A Man Called Ove comes on like the antidote to decades of emotional austerity. It's as much a feel-good movie as can be wrung from a story about a depressed and bitter old man near the end of a seemingly unfulfilled life.
Writer-director Hannes Holm's film is based on the unlikely international bestselling novel of the same name by Swedish author Fredrik Backman. Its protagonist is a cranky old codger with a hidden heart of gold, which surely ranks among the film world's worst cliches. Throw in some comically botched suicide attempts and repeated visits to his beloved wife's grave for heart-to-heart chats and you've got the makings of an unwatchable wreck — beloved bestselling novel or not.
But A Man Called Ove has surprises in store. The familiar story of an old man raging at the modern world gradually gives way to a moving tale of an atypical life told entirely in flashback. The artful way the story unfolds over the course of two hours is what makes the film so affecting. It's essentially a love story — and a bit of a tearjerker — but it's all intended to spotlight the simple truth that each of us possesses a secret history that makes us who we are — and how it can take a lifetime to make sense of it all.
A story this personal isn't going anywhere without heartfelt performances. Celebrated Swedish actor Rolf Lassgard brings some much-needed authenticity to the present-day Ove. Though not a comic actor, he handles the film's gentle humor gracefully. Bahar Pars, an Iranian-born Swede and successful filmmaker in her own right, hits the high notes as the immigrant neighbor who begins to pull Ove out of his shell. As Ove's free-spirited wife Sonja in the flashback sequences, Ida Engvoll leaves an indelible mark on the film despite limited screen time.
The story of Ove's and Sonja's marriage may seem unlikely given the characters' opposite personalities. But their logic-defying union rings true and may be key to the novel's unexpected success. The hazards of adapting literature to the screen become apparent late in the film as Holm tries to cram too much into a small cinematic space. A brief subplot about a young gay man who's disowned by his father and turns to Ove for help may demonstrate Ove's rapidly expanding worldview, but it also seems tacked on and trite.
There may not be anything innovative or new about A Man Called Ove, but that doesn't keep the film from packing an emotional punch. It's the kind of story that makes it easier to approach the most difficult people in your life with renewed understanding — even empathy. That's a timely lesson to take as the holiday season arrives, especially in this divisive election year.