Based on the charming comic novel of the same name by Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ove (“En man som heter Ove”), by long-established Swedish director Hannes Holm (who also wrote the screenplay), is a touching comedy/drama that begins with a superficial reading of the title character, but gradually goes deeper into his past and his motivations, until it uncovers the layers of experience that made him what he is.
Ove (Rolf Lassgard) is a caricature of the archetypal cranky, interfering old man. Preoccupied with rules and order, he has become the self-appointed overseer of his neighbourhood, angrily berating those who make any misstep, from walking on the grass to failing to secure a gate. He posts notices reminding neighbours of the community rules, and patrols the streets twice daily, looking for infractions. His obsession is both funny and infuriating, and along with his gruff and insulting manner, has resulted in his being generally disliked and largely solitary.
We soon learn that Ove’s wife has recently died; he visits her grave daily, his one-sided conversations with her providing brief glimpses of Ove’s thoughts. Once he is dismissed from his factory job, these daily visits and his neighbourhood supervision are his main activities. The fact that Ove is calmly and dispassionately planning his suicide emerges without drama, and his matter-of-fact efforts to die, and his annoyance at being repeatedly hindered, are played for dry comedy. His first attempt is interrupted; but in the course of it, Ove’s mind wanders over his past, and we are shown the first flashback of his early life.
The situation on Ove’s street changes when a new family moves in next door to him, whose friendliness Ove finds irritating. The pregnant wife is Iranian, and therefore regarded with frank suspicion by Ove. From here, the film follows two main plots: Ove’s relationship with his new neighbours, who refuse to be put off by the old man’s grumpiness and slowly form a friendship with him; and the story of Ove’s life, told in intermittent flashbacks.
Beginning with his childhood, Ove’s life is shown as often disappointing, offering occasional moments of joy but even more personal tragedies, large and small. Meeting his wife, Sonja (Ida Engvoll), and winning her affection is Ove’s single greatest triumph, the source of virtually all the happiness his ordinary life had to offer. The glimpses of the past, and of a young and not yet obnoxious Ove (played very likable by Filip Berg), give us a clearer idea of Ove’s character, show us what the loss of his wife must mean to him, and explain how he came to be the way he is.
While the flashbacks gradually approach the present day, Ove forms a reluctant friendship with his young neighbours, and learns to let go of some of his resentment and bitterness.
The film unfortunately passes over some of the funniest parts of the original novel, although it does retain the book’s wry humour. The outwardly simple story is handled gracefully, with both humour and pathos but without ever becoming mawkish, and without becoming overbearing in driving home a message. Ove is developed as a true to life character, one with many flaws, ranging from hilarious to appalling, but with endearing human qualities as well. The viewer can’t help but become closer to him in the course of the film, and to make his concerns their own – ultimately, through the filmmakers’ skill, even when his chief concern is the violation of neighbourhood bylaws. This multiple award-winning film is a unembellished gem.