So, the Scandinavians are good at drama, everybody knows that. Wallander, Borgen, The Bridge, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to name but a few, have impressed audiences on screens large and small, proving that a cool climate and a good story can amount to something seriously compelling.
If Felix Herngren’s (deep breath) The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is anything to go by, they are also quite funny.
Based on Swedish author Jonas Jonasson’s acclaimed 2009 novel of the same title, Herngren’s film succeeds in conveying the book’s unmistakeable spirit while, at the same time, delivering an endearingly genre-free comedy-cum-road movie.
Everything revolves around Allan Karlsson, who, on the day of his 100th birthday, casually abandons his bland retirement home, shrill nurse and crap party, heading out into the wide world for no apparent reason. As narrator, he proceeds to recall the days of his youth and the global adventures to which he was exposed.
There is an obvious scale to the memories which might be seem silly if it were not for the eponymous centenarian himself, a man so vague, so uninterested in anything of consequence, that the events and figures sucked into his shuffling existence shrink around him.
It is amusingly done, though accomplished with far less refinement than the similarly-themed Forrest Gump, the saccharine tendencies of which are eschewed from the moment Allan recalls the demise of his father, a bizarrely militant proponent of the humble condom — one particular condom, apparently — who made the mistake of establishing his own tiny contraceptive-conscious republic in the middle of Moscow only to find the Russians less forgiving of his ramblings than the Swedes.
Indeed, Allan’s early years were a bit bleak altogether. Orphaned at nine, and obsessed with ‘blowing stuff up’, he would be packed off to an asylum during his childhood, not that he ever seems particularly perturbed by that fact. All of this is interspersed with the hardy old goat’s flight as he leaves absolutely no troubles behind him.
More grey than dark, less raucous than irreverent, Allan’s experiences, in both the past and the present, do not aim for side-splitting slapstick, employing a slyer take on his silly brushes with history, but the humour is broad and slightly populist, its protagonist unaware of the chaos he often induces.
He is an engaging character, likeable in spite of his preternatural capacity for destruction, and Gustafsson succeeds in portraying him as more than a mere savant. Whether it is detonating bridges with the International Brigades in Spain or saving the Manhattan Project thanks to a fondness for dynamite, Allan is mostly unmoved by all this because he simply does not care about any of it.
A life spent dodging catastrophes by accident and crossing endless wires pays off as he winds up, on the day of his escape, with a suitcase full of cash belonging to scene-chewing, Bali-based scumbag, Pim. Played by Alan Ford, Pim is a somewhat more bronzed version of his psychotic Brick Top character from Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, and while the purpose of the money remains unclear, in the end it matters little. If Allan’s unstoppable, wonderfully ponderous forward momentum indicates anything, it is that the gangsters — comprised, mostly, of an unspeakably moronic Swedish skinhead outfit — are never going to see the cash again.
If The Hundred-Year-Old Man veers, occasionally, into high farce, that should come as no surprise. Jonasson’s creation is a fine one but any film aiming for laughs can only go so far on the lead’s inimitable indifference. It almost demands a scene where an elephant sits on a man’s face, or for somebody to drop a hammer off the top of a skyscraper. In the opening scene Allan explodes a fox for killing his cat, Molotov, a suitably bizarre opening, perhaps, but strangely apt given the archness of the often meandering plot.
Overall there is not an awful lot to tie the disparate flashback strands together. For all the central player’s wild travails, they lend little to his development as a character — maybe that is the point — and there exists a distinct lack of subtext. Allan’s career in international espionage is as clever as it gets.
Herngren tackles his feature with enthusiasm, however, as he works from a script crafted alongside Jonasson, whose presence surely maintains the quietly anarchic essence of his literary original. The author should be pleased, if nothing else, that this enjoyable filmic realisation of his vision has turned out, most probably, as he saw it in his head.
An edited version of this article was first published there.