REVIEW: DVD Release: Fanny & Alexander

Film: Fanny & Alexander
Release date: 16th November 2009
Certificate: 15
Running time: 180 mins
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Pernilla Allwin, Bertil Guve, Börje Ahlstedt, Allan Edwall, Ewa Fröling
Genre: Drama/Fantasy/Mystery
Studio: Palisades Tartan
Format: DVD
Country: Sweden/France/West Germany

Ingmar Bergman’s family epic won numerous awards on release, including Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design at the Academy Awards (though Bergman lost out on the Best Director Oscar for the third time in his career, this time to James L. Brooks). The film is also effectively Bergman’s goodbye to the world of cinema (as other than work in TV, he never directed another major feature).

In Fanny & Alexander, we follow the lives of an aristocratic Swedish family of eccentric actors over the course of two tragic years.

It is Christmas 1907, and we are introduced to the family as they gather to celebrate the festive season. All characters in the family are instantly likeable, and all are facing problems in their lives. There’s the family matriarch, the widowed grandmother Helena (Gun Wållgren), who is coming to terms with the fact that her life has passed her by, that she is old and alone, despite the fact that her former lover, the Jewish merchant Isak (Erland Josephson), still loves her dearly. There’s also Uncle Gustav (Jarl Kulle), a sad old goat seeking the affections of a pretty young servant of the family, Maj (Pernilla Wallgren) and Uncle Carl (Börje Ahlstedt) who’s severely in debt.

The two characters referred to in the title are brother and sister: Alexander (Bertil Guve) is a 10-year-old with an active imagination, and Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) his younger sister. Their lives are changed forever when their father Oscar (Allan Edwall) dies suddenly and their mother Emelie (Ewa Fröling) remarries a tyrannical bishop (Jan Malmsjö). The siblings are torn from their loving family’s embrace and forced to live with Bishop Vergerus’s fanatically zealous family. Both children (but especially Alexander) have to grow up fast and come to terms with their new situation...

Fanny & Alexander is a visually magnificent film. Long shots take in every aspect of the Ekdahl’s beautifully luxurious family mansion, and Isak’s crowded, atmospheric and mysterious antiques shop. The striking contrast between seasons is also shown vividly through the scenery – from the comforting Dickensian winter evenings in a Swedish city to the sharp and crisp spring morning at the Bishop’s country house by a waterfall. This contrast is also evident in the presentation of the families – The Ekdahls are cheerful, warm and loving, and treat their servants as part of the family, whereas the Vergerus family are stern, cold and distant, their servants living in constant fear of the bishop.

In truth, Fanny & Alexander is a film of contrasts – youth and adulthood, life and death, good and evil, religion and atheism, luxury and frugality, kindness and cruelty. It’s a film about a boy approaching puberty who has to come to terms with the death of his father and a complete change in lifestyle and surroundings, in addition to everything else a boy has to face at that age. This is where one of the film’s greatest strengths lies – in the solid central performance of the young Bertil Guve, who sadly did not choose to pursue a career in acting after this, his film debut. He has no trouble in making us believe in Alexander’s plight, and really brings across how Alexander matures throughout the film – a scene where he attempts to stand up to the severe Bishop in defiance is an undeniable highlight.

The film has the feel of a stage production about it (fittingly, as the plot concerns a family of actors) and has the runtime to reflect it – at three hours long, you may need an interval or two! This is not a problem in the scenes directly concerning the exploits of the wacky family, but, at times, the film can drag – there are only so many rambling monologues and literary quotations anyone can take. It’s also hard to take some of the stranger happenings in the plot (admittedly, it’s easier not to take some of the more fantastical events completely literally, that is, unless you believe in Jewish magic!). As already mentioned, it is a film of contrasts, but the contrast between believable family situations and weird religious fantasy can be a little jarring at points.

Bergman’s final big hit is epic in every sense of the word – it’s a beautiful looking film full of sterling character performances and with the big ideas and runtime to match! You might find parts a little dragged out and preachy, and sometimes the fantasy element is taken a little too far, but that should not ruin your enjoyment of this family saga that is full to the brim with heart. SSP

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