“There was nothing before Sonja, and there is nothing after her.” Crack the cantankerous outer-shell of the boorish pensioner who stands head and shoulders above nuisance neighbours in Hannes Holm’s A Man Called Ove and beneath it lies a man bereft.
After the death of his wife, and with his soul and sole purpose of existence gone, does life remain worth living? It is testament to the Swedish director’s supreme handling of his film’s tone and pacing that a narrative involving cancer, the loss of a child and parents, and multiple suicide attempts can be so richly, darkly comedic, touching and ultimately life-affirming. As well as ruminating on grief and the impalpable, incomprehensible sense of loss in the wake of a lifelong love, A Man Called Ove gives credence to the notion that there is much more to any individual than merely a name, that outer appearance and behaviour belie an unknown past.
Played tremendously in his autumn years by Rolf Lassgård and with a nervous but forthright awkwardness in flashbacks to young adulthood by Filip Berg, Ove demonstrates his rather gruff exterior and bullish manner immediately when angered at a two-for-70 kroner, 50 kroner each deal on roses at his local garden centre. The flowers are placed at the grave of his dearly departed but two bunches is very much a one-off, he makes clear. “Miss you,” he whispers, tenderly touching the top of the gravestone. There is more to this brute than meets the eye. His mouth turned down at the edges as if by weights, it is only when beholding a picture of Sonja (Ida Engvoll) does Ove crack a smile, the warmth of a regard saved for one person alone.
With his all-important neighbourhood watch checklist completed and everything in order he then promptly ties a rope around his neck and attaches it to a hook affixed to his living room ceiling. This initial attempt, shocking as it may be, is interrupted by the arrival of a family next door. The seriousness of Ove’s means of joining Sonja is then opposed with his new neighbour’s inability to reverse a trailer – one of a series of obstacles to his eventual aim that Ove has to take care of. “You shouldn’t be allowed to reverse a decision,” the older man grumbles, but it is just this that – we hope – Ove will do as the film progresses and this seesaw between life and death, laughter and tears, is extremely well navigated by Holm.
Key to A Man Called Ove’s dynamic comes in the blossoming friendship between a man attempting to end his days and a woman on the point of bringing another life into the world. Parvaneh (Bahar Pars, whose vivacity and fiery nature counterpoint Ove’s perfectly) is an immigrant, wife and mother of two, soon to be three. Bringing warmth, humanity and a fair amount of madness into the mix their unlikely kinship proves what can be made of unsticking oneself from the proverbial mud. A rather contrived plot point upon the film’s conclusion should not mar Holm’s overall handling of potentially saccharine material with such uplifting aplomb.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens