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Palm Springs Film Review: ‘One Last Deal’

Variety — Dennis Harvey

After successfully collaborating on 2015’s fact-inspired “The Fencer,” Finnish director Klaus Haro and scenarist Anna Heinamaa reteam for another low-key wade into feel-good dramatic terrain with “One Last Deal.” This wholly fictive tale centers on an elderly Helinski gallery owner, whose attempt to pull off a final sales coup before retiring, ends up enlisting help from — and mending relations with — his semi-estranged daughter and grandson. Restraint early pays off in emotional rewards later for what’s essentially a formulaic curmudgeon-redeemed-despite-himself tearjerker. Among the more popular titles this year among Palm Springs’ older-skewing festival-goers, it could capitalize on that appeal in offshore sales while also offering remake potential to overseas admirers.

Olavi (longtime Finnish thesp Heikki Nousiainen, who also starred in Haro’s “Letters to Father Jacob”) is a widower who devotes all his time to his business, and probably always has. But that business is not doing particularly well: Online sales have seriously cut into storefront enterprises such as his own, and he’s so far behind the times that he doesn’t even have a computer — all his records are still on yellowing index-card files.

Fussy and preoccupied, his only apparent friend is professional colleague Patu (Pertti Sveholm), who’s in much the same boat but has a more genial personality. It’s Patu with whom Olavi shares his suspicions that an unsigned painting glimpsed at a local auction preview might be an overlooked work by 19th century Russian master Ilya Repin. If so, its acquisition would comprise exactly the sort of triumph he feels he needs to end his sagging career on a high note.

Meanwhile, Olavi is ignoring phone calls from his middle-aged daughter Lea (Pirjo Lonka), though it seems he actually ought to be the one trying to repair their barely extant relationship. She asks a favor: Her only child, teenaged Otto (Amos Brotherus), needs job training certification. Couldn’t he help at the gallery? Olavi isn’t interested until circumstances force him to take up the offer so he can research the mystery painting. Though they have little beyond blood in common, the old man and his grandson develop a certain rapport, particularly once enterprising Otto turns out to be the one who confirms the origin of the painting — a portrait not of a Russian monk or peasant, as Olavi originally thought, but a depiction of Christ.

Its illustrious painter still unknown to anyone else, the work nonetheless commands a surprisingly high amount at auction, requiring Olavi to go far out on a financial limb in order to secure it. That becomes a source of tension, complicated further by his borrowing money from a problematic source. Difficulties also arise in his dealings with a hostile auction house employee (Jakob Ohrman) stung by the loss of a much bigger sale; and a wealthy prospective buyer (Stefan Sauk). “One Last Deal” drums up suspense over whether Olavi’s mechanizations might yet end in defeat — and/or wind up torpedoing his still-tentative reconciliations with Lea and Otto.

Director and scenarist execute their tale with enough restraint — reflective of the lead character’s stunted emotional range — to eke out poignancy from what’s at core a somewhat predictable narrative arc. The payoff might have been greater had more insight been offered into how Olavi became estranged from his only surviving relations. Was he always this remote? Were things different with his late wife? The scant dialogue Lea gets about their shared past suggests he was never much of a father. The audience must take it on faith that she’d still hope for a positive interaction with him — or that he’d suddenly feel a pang of regret over his own behavior. We’re willing to believe those things not because what’s onscreen makes them palpable, but simply because redemption is part of the formula for this kind of story. One could argue there’s more involvement and urgency in the movie’s art history sleuthing aspects than there is in its human drama.

Still, “One Last Deal” arrives snugly at an emotional destination that was never much in doubt, one both melancholy and reassuring. The craftsmanship that gets us there is assured all around, from Heinamaa’s economical writing to the expert manner in which Haro couches the largely frustrated interpersonal dynamics in brisk pacing and a subtly warm visual palette. He gets solid work from an expert cast, with Nousiainen fine as a man so credibly absorbed in his little world of art that one has to ultimately forgive his never having made enough time for anything (or anyone) else.