Tale unfolds on Bergman’s old stomping grounds

Filmmaking couple Chris and Tony (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) take a working vacation in Bergman Island.

By Richard Ades

Bergman Island should appeal to devotees of the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman—at least on the surface.  

Written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love, the flick sends filmmaking couple Chris and Tony (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) to Faro, the island that often served as the auteur’s home and movie set. There they go to work on their separate writing projects while sleeping in a bed that reportedly was used in Scenes From a Marriage, Bergman’s painful account of a marriage’s disintegration.

The obvious implication is that we’re about to see a similar disintegration take place between Chris and Tony, whose relationship may not be that solid to begin with. Tony, who appears to be decades older, is so engrossed in his work that he sometimes seems distant and even ignores Chris’s romantic overtures. His career also is more established than hers, possibly creating the kind of power imbalance that played a destructive role in Scenes. This becomes obvious when a local screening of one of Tony’s films draws gushing fans while Chris disappears into the background.  

It’s no surprise, then, that when a young man offers to give Chris a private tour of the island, she takes it, in the process skipping a group excursion she was supposed to take with Tony. Is this the beginning of the unraveling of their relationship?

But then director Hansen-Love takes things in a new and unexpected direction. After Chris begins telling Tony about a screenplay she’s struggling to finish, her script comes to life as we’re introduced to Amy (Mia Wasikowska), its lonely protagonist. We watch as Amy arrives at a Swedish island to attend a friend’s wedding and runs into Joe (Anders Danielsen Lie), an old love for whom she still carries a torch.

Will Amy and Joe reconnect despite the fact that each is now involved with someone else? The question is explored at length as the movie-within-a-movie goes on and on, to the extent that it nearly eclipses the original story of Chris and Tony. On the one hand, that’s OK, because Amy and Joe’s story is a pleasant diversion. On the other hand, it’s odd that the film’s core relationship is left so undeveloped.

After hearing about the complications Hansen-Love faced in making the movie, it’s hard not to wonder whether they contributed to this lapse. Owen Wilson was supposed to play Tony but bowed out weeks before filming started, forcing the director to begin shooting without a Tony in 2018. It wasn’t until 2019, after Roth had been cast in the part, that she was able to return to the island and fill in the gaps.

A few late twists do offer some insight into Chris’s relationship with Tony while raising questions about her connections with the supposedly fictitious Amy and Joe. These add intriguing ambiguities to the film, though they don’t quite make up for its failure to delve into interpersonal issues as richly as Bergman did in Scenes From a Marriage and other classics.

That’s a high standard, admittedly, but when you make a film called Bergman Island, it’s hard to avoid the comparison.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Bergman Island (rated R) opens in select theaters Oct. 15 and will be available from VOD outlets beginning Oct. 22.

Like a less curmudgeonly, more Scandinavian version of Doc Martin

Rolf Lassgard as the gruff title character in A Man Called Ove
Rolf Lassgard as the gruff title character in A Man Called Ove

By Richard Ades

Fans of the British TV series Doc Martin know grumpy heroes can be both endearing and entertaining. Now we have a Swedish movie, A Man Called Ove, that aims to prove they can be just as endearing and entertaining in a country that drives on the opposite side of the road.

If the flick doesn’t succeed quite as brilliantly, it’s because director/screenwriter Hannes Holm doesn’t have the series’ knack for tickling us with quirky comedy before surprising us with heart-stopping suspense or heartwarming drama. The film, adapted from Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel, takes a more direct route to our emotions.

We first meet Ove (Rolf Lassgard) when he’s haggling with a store clerk over the price of a bouquet of flowers. He comes off as an unreasonable, disagreeable curmudgeon. Then, in the next scene, we realize he bought the flowers to take to his late wife’s grave. Oops. I guess we should give the old guy a break.

Another reason for pitying him arrives when his young bosses call him into their office and pretend they’re doing him a favor by laying him off from the company where he’s worked for 43 years. Little wonder that Ove—wifeless, friendless and now jobless—is soon attempting suicide. The only thing that stops him is the arrival of a new family of neighbors led by Parvanah (Bahar Pars), a pregnant Iranian immigrant who immediately begins inserting herself into Ove’s lonely existence.

From this point on, the film revolves on the question of whether the friendly Parvanah will succeed in renewing Ove’s interest in the world and those who share it. Though he continues trying to join his wife in the great beyond, the film gives us little reason for pessimism. For one thing, Parvanah is such a bubbly force of nature that it’s impossible to believe he can resist her for long. For another, numerous episodes reveal that Ove is far less misanthropic than he pretends to be.

One such incident involves another Doc Martin parallel: Just as Martin is bedeviled by a homeless dog that refuses to leave him alone, Ove is bedeviled by a fluffy homeless cat. Yet as soon as the cat is threatened, he comes to its rescue.

Other scenes depict Ove as downright heroic. At times, when he alone steps forward to prevent a tragedy, he appears to be the only heroic person in Sweden.

Through much of the film, incidents from Ove’s current life are interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood and young adulthood. The most charming of these depict how he met Sonja (Ida Engvoll), the outgoing woman who became his wife. The most puzzling involves an encounter with one of the dictatorial officials he refers to as “whiteshirts.”

The flashbacks show the developments that helped to turn Ove into the sad individual he’s become, but in the process they give the film an episodic structure. They also reinforce the flick’s tendency toward heavy-handed melodrama.

Though flawed, A Man Called Ove paints a warm portrait of an aging individual who’s given a well-deserved second chance at life. As a popular example of modern Swedish cinema—it’s the country’s nominee for a Foreign Language Film Oscar—it may come as a pleasant surprise to those more familiar with the dour works of Ingmar Bergman.

As for fans of Doc Martin who are looking for an emergency dose of curmudgeonhood, they’ll probably be less satisfied. Fortunately for them, an eighth (and supposedly last) season is set to air next year.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

A Man Called Ove, rated PG-13, opens Friday (Oct. 21) at the Drexel Theatre, 2254 E. Main St., Bexley.