‘Britt-Marie Was Here’ is a sweet but slight tale of late-in-life reinvention

Thomas Floyd

THE WASHINGTON POST – Britt-Marie Was Here, Director Tuva Novotny’s sweet but slight story of a Swedish woman’s golden-years reinvention, doles out the titular character’s tragic backstory through fleeting childhood flashbacks. With a hazy dream here and a brief recollection there, these moments offer a welcome glimpse into the psyche of a guarded protagonist. Yet, they remain just that – a glimpse.

For the rest of the film, the audience is decidedly less clued in to the musings and motivations of Britt-Marie (an understated Pernilla August), a 63-year-old housewife with a penchant for making lists, compulsively cleaning and keeping her silverware drawer immaculately organised. When her husband (Peter Haber) suffers a heart attack and Britt-Marie discovers a mistress at his side in the hospital, she cordially shakes the woman’s hand, heads home, packs her bags and places her wedding ring on the counter.

Considering Britt-Marie hasn’t held a job in 40 years, and possesses a general disdain for leaving the safety of home, finding work on her own proves difficult. When she gets wind of a temporary job overseeing a neglected youth recreation centre in another town, she boards a bus and takes the gig sight unseen. It hardly matters to her that the position involves coaching the local youth soccer team, despite her decidedly apathetic view toward the sport. (“I much prefer crosswords,” she insists.)

As a portrait of a woman belatedly learning to live life on her own terms, Britt-Marie Was Here carries itself with an easy charm. Novotny, an actress perhaps best known for her turn in the under-appreciated mind-bender Annihilation, manages the tone here with a delicate hand, though some flashy, Edgar Wright-esque editing and a whimsical score do lend style to the proceedings. Only the awkwardly staged soccer sequences play as a directorial misfire.

But the script, based on a 2014 novel from A Man Called Ove author Fredrik Backman, descends into predictable plotting. Britt-Marie Was Here clocks in at a breezy 94 minutes, and while there’s something to be said for an economical narrative, this story would have benefitted from a more padded runtime. The ragtag collection of kids Britt-Marie ends up coaching are endearing enough, but only the plucky Vega (Stella Oyoko Bengtsson) gets much of a discernible personality. The small-town setting also comes with the requisite collection of quirky characters, including a vision-impaired grump (Malin Levanon) and a kindhearted cop (Anders Mossling) with eyes for Britt-Marie. They’re likable, intriguing and, for the most part, a tad under-developed.

Even Britt-Marie’s arc feels expedited en route to an overly telegraphed final destination.

It’s both a success and a shortcoming of Britt-Marie Was Here that the flashbacks to her younger years, and the discovery of what happened to her more free-spirited sister, represent the film at its fullest emotional capacity.

Although they’re deftly handled sequences that richly inform Britt-Marie’s perspective, they come in service of an otherwise unchallenging character study. As pleasant as the film may be, Britt-Marie’s reckoning is as tidy as her cutlery drawer – but without the sharp edges.

Pernilla August (R) in Britt-Marie Was Here. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST