Synopsis: Accepting a supremely unglamorous job at a ramshackle rec center in the backwater town of Borg, Britt-Marie finds herself taking an interest in the daily routines of the town’s oddball denizens – who all seem perfectly content to be stuck in their ways.
Stars: Pernilla August, Peter Haber, Anders Mossling, Malin Levanon, Olle Sarri, Vera Vitali
Director: Tuva Novotny
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: As much as the next person, I take some special delight in creature comforts. This could be relaxing on a rainy day, whipping up a favorite family recipe that most definitely isn’t a part of a well-balanced diet, or exploring the outdoors and communing with nature. Mostly, if I want to hunker down and take it easy, I spark with formula films that don’t require much emotional investment yet still give me a good return on the time I’m devoting to the venture. Not every movie can be a When Harry Met Sally… or Indian Summer or Mermaids.
That’s the case with Britt-Marie Was Here, a Swedish film based on the 2014 novel by Fredrik Backman. It’s your standard paint-by-numbers drama about a woman leaving behind a long marriage for something new and challenging. In the process of stepping out of her comfort zone she learns about valuing herself more and gains a greater understanding of the world at large. This isn’t exactly revolutionary material but it isn’t without merit either. There’s room and a desire for these stories to be told…but they need to be told better than this.
Britt-Marie (celebrated Swedish actress Pernilla August, best known to American audiences as Anakin Skywalker’s mother in the Star Wars prequels) lives a life dominated by lists and order. Her marriage to Kent has become predictable, her routines set in stone. When her life is upended at a most inopportune time, Britt-Marie surprises even herself by leaving her stability behind and taking a job working in a small town managing their rec center. Expected to also coach their football (soccer) team, Britt-Marie finds that the town and the children she’s now responsible for need more than a good cleaning and a semblance of order.
The source novel the film was based on has been adapted by Anders Frithiof August, Øystein Karlsen, and director Tuva Novotny and I’d be interested to see if the original text was as clunky as what the three screenwriters have produced here. The movie goes through the motions in such a staid way that you half expect to look down and see blueprints on the floor guiding the actors to the next scene. Nothing happens that’s unexpected or surprising – which is a shame because the author of the book has given us something interesting before. The 2015 film A Man Called Ove was a surprise sleeper hit in the art house circuit. Good word of mouth kept the film running for quite some time and I think I finally saw it when it had been playing or six or seven weeks. Nominated at the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Makeup, it was a similar story of an elderly Swedish curmudgeon that warms when exposed to an environment different than their own. That’s why I was originally interested to see Backman’s name attached to this film, even if in the end it din’t measure up.
To the movie’s credit, August is very good in the title role. She’s brittle and has an edge to her but is never so mean that it’s unbelievable anyone would want to make a great effort with her. Though I question the randomness of a love interest that springs from nowhere (not that Britt-Marie can’t have a love interest, it’s the out of the blue nature of cupid’s arrow), she’s someone that others who have also experienced hardship can have a little bit of empathy for. Perhaps that’s director Novotny (Annihilation) lending her experience as an actress in front of the camera that helps smooth Britt-Marie’s steely nature for audiences. The remainder of the cast sadly fails to register in their cliche-ridden characters, from the plucky tyke on the football team, to the helicopter parent that wants his son’s team to win no matter what, to the disillusioned woman going blind that Britt-Marie boards with. Of course, this woman just happens to have a wealth of football experience…but is so grumpy at her current eyesight situation that she can’t possibly come around and change her attitude. I think you can guess the answer.
In the end, Britt-Marie Was Here, was just too formulaic for my tastes. It was a product grown in a laboratory many moons ago that’s been used before but not used wisely or with much creativity in this experiment. No amount of strong performances or heartfelt messages can change that. Britt-Marie Was Here but you should be in another theater.