Britt-Marie Was Here (Britt-Marie var här)

Sweden (2019) Dir. Tuva Novotny

You think you may be living a full life even if it is one governed by routine and duty, and all is well. Then, you get a huge wake-up call and everything you have done during your adult existence has effectively been for nothing. How do you start again after that?

63 year-old Britt-Marie (Pernilla August) has been married to Kent (Peter Haber) for 40 years, and has been a dutiful wife for the whole time. Her days consisted of cleaning, cooking, and making everything right for Kent while he went to work, but over the last few years he has been a bit distant. When Kent has a heart attack and Britt-Marie rushes to the hospital, she finds another woman by Kent’s side.

Upset by this, Britt-Marie packs her things, leaves her wedding ring, and moves out of their home. The net day she tries to get a job but with her lack of experience the only thing she can be offered is as a youth worker in the tiny town of Borg. Britt-Marie takes the position, learning she is also expected to coach the local junior football team, despite having no knowledge or interest in the game.

A Man Called Ove was one of my top ten films of 2017, a dry, often black comedy with life-affirming overtones and a potent social message. I mention this as Ove    was based on the novel by Fredrik Backman who also wrote the novel Britt-Marie Was Here of which this film is an adaptation, yet they don’t feel like they came from the same author.

It would appear the writing team, headed by Anders Frithiof August and actress-turned-director Tuva Novotny, made many sweeping changes to the source material to make this version as light and family friendly as possible. With just 91-minutes to tell the story, the clear expedience of the developments also robbed us of a substantial chunk of the book’s substance, at least judging by the online précis I have found for it.

Of course, it is entirely possible Backman did write an anodyne novel and Novotny is merely reflecting this in her adaptation. However, too many things happen in haste, characters aren’t well developed, and the obligatory crisis is a last-minute occurrence that is overcome without any drama. Given what the plot promises, expectations are not met.

But this doesn’t mean it is a bad film, just an undercooked one. It work as a light piece of Sunday afternoon viewing, doesn’t do anything to offend and isn’t challenging, not that every film has to be as cerebrally demanding as a Bergman offering. Its central message that it is never too late to start again is sign posted from the moment Britt-Marie confronts a much younger woman at the job centre who struggles to find suitable work for a woman who has been a housewife for 40 years.

Just because Kent liked to play football (mostly away, nudge nudge), and supported Manchester United, Britt-Marie uses this as having some knowledge of the game which is readily accepted. But, our protagonist is desperate and a job is a job even if it doesn’t pay well and the youth centre she is taking over in the one horse town of Borg is soon to be closed down.

To illustrate how lacking Borg is, the local pizzeria run by Memo (Mahmut Suvakci) is also the local bar, the grocery store, and the place to get odd jobs done, usually by Sami (Lancelot Ncube). There also only seems to be one policeman, Sven (Anders Mossling), a nice chap who takes a shine to Britt-Marie. After spending a few nights at the youth centre, Britt-Marie moves into the house of the beloved former football coach Papa, with his partially blind daughter Bank (Malin Levanon), a former player herself.

Not that Bank is willing to offer any help with coaching the team, her father’s death has hit her hard, and she plans to sell up and move away as soon as possible. Britt-Marie needs all the help she can get though, as the kids are not just football crazy but also far worldlier, able to run rings around her old fashioned, sheltered ideas. But they need direction as they want to win the local cup and lift Borg’s spirits.

Considering the 50-plus year age gap between them, one of the kids, Vega (Stella Oyoko Bengtsson) talks to Britt-Marie as an adult, proving more sagacious and philosophical than almost any other 11 year-old girl. Even with this established, there is little conflict between the kids and Britt-Marie, where the story usually involves both sides getting to know each other and ending up on good terms. This is practically condensed to the kids carrying on playing football and Britt-Marie cleaning up the dilapidated centre.

So, we all know how this will turn out as this is how all stories of this nature conclude, not just for the kids but for Britt-Marie too, now confronted with a choice to either return home to Kent (because the house is a mess) or start living her own life. Fortunately, even in the face of the overwhelming panoply of clichés, the inestimable Pernilla August is able to make the eponymous character a watchable figure to follow, where she could have easily phoned it in.  

Fans of the Swedish TV drama Beck will recognise Peter Haber from playing the titular detective in that series, making his turn as the duplicitous Kent a surprise in contrast to Beck’s unflappable righteousness. The child actors are good but really don’t get any time to develop individual personalities, the aforementioned Stella Oyoko Bengtsson aside.

If the pedigree of the writer and star is what drew you to Britt-Marie Was Here, chances are you will feel let down. It’s not a total write it off, serving its purpose as a slight yet serviceable way to pass 90 minutes, falling short by not striving to the same aspirations of its themes.