A Man Called Ove Charms With a Grumpy Swede, Rejoining Humanity

Rolf Lassgård, with Bahar Pars, plays the title character.
Rolf Lassgård, with Bahar Pars, plays the title character.

A Man Called Ove

Directed by Hannes Holm. Written by Hannes Holm. Based on Fredrik Backman's novel. Starring Rolf Lassgård and Bahar Pars. Opens Friday, October 14, at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

We first see the titular figure of A Man Called Ove as he executes his "rounds," a morning ritual in which he prowls through the walkways and alleys of his community looking for signs of disorder, chasing off stray animals, scowling at imperfect parking and even inspecting the contents of his neighbors' recycling bins for evidence of improper sorting, all set to a stately Schubert-inspired theme. The 59-year-old Ove is, in short, your worst nightmare of a suburban neighbor. Hannes Holm's endearing film, based on an international bestseller by Fredrik Backman, not only indulges him in his curmudgeonly intrusions but reveals — with surprising affection — how he got that way.

After losing his job (he actually quits because his bosses can't quite make it clear that they're firing him; he dislikes indecision), the recently widowed Ove (played with stubborn subtlety by Rolf Lassgård) puts on his best suit, ties a noose to the ceiling and prepares to join his dear Sonja, recalling along the way his childhood, the loss of his parents and his courtship and happy marriage. But suicide proves to be elusive. This attempt is merely the first of many in the film, all interrupted by unexpected visitors, prying children and the sudden recollection of yet another community violation that only he has the wisdom to address.

As we all know, a curmudgeonly exterior like Ove's serves only one purpose in a film: to be slowly defused and dismantled until the audience learns to see through his prickly side to find the more likable man within. In this case, Ove's slow re-entry into the world comes by way of encounters with the family that has just moved in across the street: an inept young man, his pregnant wife (Bahar Pars) and their two small children, along with a large stray cat. These are precisely the type of neighbors who draw Ove's wrath.

You don't have to have read the book (I haven't) to know exactly where A Man Called Ove is going, but that doesn't detract from its charm. Refreshingly unsentimental, its humor comes not from turning its sour and unforgiving protagonist into a warm, fuzzy new person, but from the utter indifference of the neighbors who crowd into his life. They're not trying to change his bitterness into warmth; they barely take notice of his disdain for them. As Ove, Lassgård is just a little out of touch with the world and unrepentantly stoic; he doesn't learn to love his neighbors, merely to bear them. As the most demanding of his intrusive new companions, Iranian-Swedish actress Bahar Pars is his perfect comic foil, dragging him through one reluctant encounter after another, from having him give her driving instructions to making him serve as babysitter. She storms into his life, as indifferent to his isolated sense of reality as he is to her.

Director Hannes Holm sets a lot of different tones throughout the film, juggling flashbacks and dream sequences, underplaying comedy without allowing the darker moments to become too grim. Modest wide-screen compositions give us a sense of Ove's world (as well as his isolation), from the labyrinthine layout of his gated community to the private refuge of his home. It would have been easy to sentimentalize Ove's transformation, to milk emotional moments from it and drown the film in faux-warmth, but Holm wisely adopts a cooler approach, content simply to make him human.

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