Review: Britt-Marie Was Here is a Sweet Swedish Story of Starting Over

Three years ago, a wonderful little Swedish film called A Man Called Ove was released in the U.S., and as far as art-house films go, it found a sizable audience and was even nominated for two Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film. That movie was based on a bestselling novel by Fredrik Backman, whose works have a huge following in America. Now, an adaptation of another one of his books, Britt-Marie Was Here, has arrived. The story concerns 63-year-old Britt-Marie (Pernilla August), a woman to whom order and routine means everything. She has kept her home spotless and tidy for the entirety of her 40-year marriage, but clearly her husband’s apathy about her hard work has taken its toll on the passion in their life.

Britt-Marie Was Here
Image courtesy of Cohen Media Group

After her husband has a heart attack, Britt-Marie arrives at the hospital to find a younger woman at his bedside. While the presumed mistress leaves immediately and Britt-Marie doesn’t wish to discuss the situation further, upon returning home, she wastes no time packing her bags and leaving her husband with no real prospects or marketable skills outside of housework.

Britt-Marie finds a completely unsuitable job heading up a youth center in the backwater Swedish town of Borg, with her primary task being to coach a rowdy bunch of kids into something resembling a soccer team. The previous coach died recently and was fairly beloved. What follows is a combination of an elderly woman not only discovering that she still has something to offer the world at large but growing to love the freedom she experiences outside of the home (although she does still begin her time at the youth center by cleaning every square inch and demanding the kids keep it clean as well).

If Britt-Marie Was Here had been made in America, the life lessons would have been bolder and more obvious, but in the hands of actress-turned-filmmaker Tuva Novotny (Blindspot), the character of Britt-Marie doesn’t have to go through radical changes that make her less abrasive and passive-aggressive. In a way, the world and Britt-Marie essentially meet in the middle. She doesn’t have children of her own, so suddenly having to relate to and coach a large number of them at once is something of a shock to her system. These kids aren’t exactly the Bad News Bears; the struggle is real, but manageable.

And the way she slowly integrates herself into the town is gradual and not forced either. She moves in with the daughter of the kids’ late soccer coach, who is basically blind and initially even more gruff than Britt-Marie. There’s also a town councilman who, despite being the father of one of the kids on the team, still seems intent on shutting the youth center down after the team’s final match. And naturally there’s even a potential new love interest in the form of a handsome and kindly police officer (Anders Mossling), which thankfully never becomes the focus of the film but still gives Britt-Marie hope in that area of her life, especially when her husband shows up demanding that she return home to put their home back in order (he’s all heart, that one).

In this country, August is probably best known for playing Anakin Skywalker’s mother in the Star Wars prequels, but her history as one of the world’s preeminent actors stretches back to the 1970s, including working with Ingmar Bergman in his later years, and she hasn’t stopped working since. It’s wonderful to see her shine like this and bring her gifts as a performer capable of playing this life transition in a way that is subtle, not afraid to show the challenges of upending one’s world so late in life, while taking the time to emerge from the fear of the new and find new types of friendships and even love. This is a small, sweet work that finds notes of grace that elevate it into something bordering on inspirational.

The film opens today at the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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