Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Man Called Ove: The Grouch Submitted to the Oscars

Even by Swedish standards, Ove Lindahl is a rigid cold fish. Of course, anyone who has seen A Christmas Carol knows there must be a big, sensitive lug inside him someplace. Instead of ghosts, we will come to understand Lindahl’s past through flashbacks launched by his unsuccessful attempts to end it all. Suicide might be painless, but it is surprisingly difficult in Hannes Holm’s adaptation of Frederik Backman’s hit Swedish novel, A Man Called Ove (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lindahl is the dreaded enforcer of his townhouse association’s rules and regulations. He used to be the association’s president, until he was ousted in a coup led by his former best friend, Rune. Tragically, his usurper has been incapacitated by a stroke, but the imperious Ove was not asked back. When he is officially downsized by his longtime factory employer, Lindahl decides it is time to join  his late wife Sonja, which might be the most considerate thing he has done in years. However, he is interrupted time and again by his endearingly clueless new neighbors. Against his will, Lindahl starts to bond with the Persian émigré Parvaneh and her two young daughters (but her klutzy Swedish husband Patrick remains a bit of a lost cause).

Old Ove is exactly the sort of Grouchy Gus just waiting to blossom into a butterfly that we have seen time and again. Yet, the flashback scenes that explain the making of Ove pack a real punch. It is surprisingly moving to watch Filip Berg as the earnest young Lindahl, struggling to release the pent-up feelings he is so ill-equipped to express. He also forges some poignant chemistry with Ida Engvoll as his beloved Sonja. Ove’s recurring run-ins with bureaucratic authorities (the “whiteshirts”) further distinguish the film with unexpected Kafkaesque dimensions. Still, there is no getting around the cloying sentimentality of the present day narrative.

Considering Rolf Lassgård was the first actor Henning Mankell’s angst-ridden detective Kurt Wallander, we know he can brood with the best of them. He does indeed wring every drop of dignity out of the manipulative script. Lassgård’s big, commanding presence is impressive, no doubt about it.

The fifth biggest domestic Swedish box office performer ever, A Man Called Ove was a shrewd choice for Sweden’s foreign language Oscar submission. After all, a good percentage of the Academy will instantly relate to the crotchety old goat. It is generally a competent piece of feel-goodism, but there are flashes of inspiration in Lindahl’s troubled past. Recommended for Tuesdays with Morrie-reading fans of accessible cross-over foreign films, A Man Called Ove opens this Friday (9/30) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the Paris Theatre uptown.