Film Review: Swedish Oscar Contender ‘A Man Called Ove’ Is Heartwarming and Darkly Funny

The grumpy old man is surely one of the most recognizable stock characters in cinema and even in real life. And if Hannes Holm‘s “A Man Called Ove” is any indication, he is also one of the most misunderstood. In the typically quirky style of Swedish comedies, this portrait of one such man explores a troubled life to reveal an affectingly heartwarming story.

“A Man Called Ove” begins on a sad note for our eponymous character. He has just been let go from an engineering job to which he has dedicated most of his life. Annoyed, he returns to his lonely home to contemplate what to do now and whether he should go on living. Feeling hopeless, his situation is made no less better due to the nuisance of his neighbors, who can’t seem to abide by the strict neighborhood rules he holds so dear as the former chairman of the residents’ association. As their laid-back attitudes continue to provoke his cantankerous personality, one particular family enters his life and tries to strike up a friendship. Gradually, Ove slowly begins to let his guard down, eventually opening up about the tragic past that formed his curmudgeonly attitude. And thus, the audience gets taken on a tumultuous journey through the ups and downs of life.

Indeed, like a traditional biopic, writer-director Hannes Holm highlights the major moments in the life of this fictional character. And like many of the “great men” we’ve seen in this genre, Ove is quintessentially flawed but well-intentioned. Taking guidance from the source novel of the same name, Holm crafts a deeply probing character study. Particularly in Ove’s backstory of his younger years, the film captivates with its inspired triumphs, sweet romance and utterly heartbreaking tragedy. And these flashback scenes are acted with gusto by Viktor Baagøe as a child and Filip Berg as a young adult, establishing the underlying vulnerability of the man.

But the marquee performance belongs to the terrific Rolf Lassgård as the 59-year-old Ove. Standing at 6-feet-3 inches, he has an imposing presence on screen. And with his crotchety demeanor, he is the source of much of the film’s humor through his snappy insults, and in a more morbid way, his frequent and varied suicide attempts.

Yet despite the film’s undeniably dark undertones, it manages to be ultimately heartwarming. Admittedly, the moralistic intent of Ove’s burgeoning friendship with his pleasant neighbors softens some of the film’s brilliantly caustic edges and sense of humor. But aside from the necessary cliches, the dynamic direction, fluid editing, moody cinematography and strong craft overall make for satisfying viewing. And through his acting, Lassgård disarms you with every moment of fragility and makes even the slightest smile feel like a small victory. It’s easy to see why “A Man Called Ove” made the Oscar shortlists for Best Foreign Language Film and Makeup and Hairstyling. And Lassgård deserves consideration for Best Actor, too.

A Man Called Ove” is now available on DVD and VOD.

GRADE: (★★★)

“A Man Called Ove” is the Swedish submission for the 2016 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.