Swedish author Fredrik Blackman’s 2012 novel “A Man Called Ove” was the source of Hannes Holm’s Oscar-nominated film of 2016, and another from two years later is the basis for Tura Novotny’s “Britt-Marie Was Here.” It shares its theme with “Ove” in that a person approaching old age must suddenly deal with major surprises. In this case, however, the protagonist is a woman, who has to deal not with the death of a spouse and the loss of a job—as Ove did—but with the discovery that her husband has been unfaithful, and with the need to find a job after being a devoted—indeed, obsessively devoted—housewife over the decades.
These are issues that could easily lend themselves to heavy melodramatic treatment, but as was the case with its predecessor, what makes “Britt-Marie” engaging is that they’re treated with a disarmingly deadpan, low-key sense of humor. The result is undoubtedly manipulative, but you find yourself not minding.
The film benefits enormously from the lead performance of Pernilla August, who introduces us to her character via narration in which she describes herself proudly as an almost obsessively disciplined housewife who has given herself over to a regimen of cleaning, laundering and shopping for forty years while Kent (Peter Haber) has gone off to work and spent most of his time at home watching soccer on television—a sport she considers a foolish (and totally unintelligible) waste of time.
That makes it all the more ironic when the job she’s offered at the employment bureau after she learns that Kent has been having an affair with a much younger beauty (Vera Vitali)—a revelation that causes her immediately to pack up and leave—is as custodian of a crumbling youth center in a tiny town, where her main responsibility will be to coach the kid’s football team.
August brings a tone of wry self-understanding to the character, underlining Britt-Marie’s extreme need to remain in control, of her emotion as well as the situation around her, even as her inner vulnerability, and the reasons behind it, are revealed through flashbacks involving her (Ella Juliusson Sturk) and her beloved sister Ingrid (Sigrid Högberg), as well as reluctant confessions in the present. By the close in August’s hands Britt-Marie has subtly transformed into a touching figure rather than merely a slightly ridiculous one.
That change comes about as a result of the acquaintance Britt-Marie makes with the remarkable residents of the small town of Borg, where she’s sent. Among them, of course, are the rambunctious soccer-playing kids, notably Vega (Stella Oyoko Bengtsson), for whom competing in an upcoming tournament against a traditional rival, and at least scoring against them, is overwhelmingly important for a number of reasons.
But there are a number of adults who make a deep impression on her as well. There’s Sami (Lancelot Ncube), Vega’s older brother, who had also applied for the position Britt-Marie got, and Memo (Mahmut Suvakci), his boss at the general store; Sven (Anders Mossling), the local cop who takes a romantic interest in Britt-Marie; and Bank (Malin Levanon), the sight-impaired daughter of the late coach, in whose home Sven arranges for Britt-Marie to rent a room. All of them play a part in the obligatory tournament game at the close, which goes ahead after a brief hiccup and affords a mildly triumphant outcome, for the team and the town.
Connected with it is the quandary Britt-Marie finds herself in when Kent shows up and begs her to come home. Will she fall into line or follow her dreams? What do you think?
There’s a bittersweet quality to the film, which unquestionably toys with our emotions but is less heavy-handed about it than most pictures of this kind, thanks to the likable cast and Novotny’s gentle direction. Except for the flashbacks, which cinematographer Jonas Alarik gives a glossy hallucinatory quality, the picture is very straightforwardly shot in a rather homely, even ragged style, but even that is a positive, maintaining the picture’s modest tone.
“Britt-Marie Was Here” isn’t quite the equal of “A Man Called Ove”—of which Tom Hanks is reportedly working on an English-language adaptation—but it’s a similarly endearing portrait of someone forced to make significant life changes and becoming a better person in the process, through simple human contact.