Just as Wolfgang Petersen was threatening Europe with a 300-minute TV cut of Das Boot came the ultimate “hold my stein” move from Ingmar Bergman, whose Fanny and Alexander miniseries clocks in at a leisurely 312 minutes. This review concerns the 1982 theatrical release, practically a short at 188 minutes.
Bookended by family gatherings, the semi-autobiographical epic follows the Ekdahl dynasty; a benevolent band of thespians, proprietors and philanderers drinking their way through the Christmas booze and the early 20th century. The Swedish auteur tells the riches-to-rags story from the perspective of the eponymous children (Pernilla Allwin and Bertil Guve), plucked out of their cosy gingerbread house and into the violent arms of their bishop stepfather (Jan Malmsjö).
Pitched somewhere between David Copperfield and Hamlet, it positions the play as the thing that shapes a childhood. Alexander’s lively imagination is rendered indistinguishable from his immediate surroundings, via dreamlike direction that blurs the lines between ghosts, gods and puppetry; mannequins moving as though possessed. This allows Bergman to wax metaphysical in an essentially naturalistic environment, weaving mysticism into the mundane like a master magician.
Though it shares those themes of religion and death with The Seventh Seal, it is probably more tangible. Familial ritual and familiar characters (buxom maid, flatulent uncle etc.) ground the lengthy drama, which holds one’s interest throughout; a testament to the absorbing production design that emphasises the stark contrast between the Ekdahls’ warmth and the bishop’s austerity, as well as uniformly lifelike performances (even if Fanny proves the quietest title character since the advent of sound).
Apart from Alexander it is the oldest family members who beat at the heart of the film, almost regarding the intervening years as folly. Punctuated by intermittent humour and occasional brutality (reserved for the cruelest Christian characters), Fanny and Alexander is both funny and full of wonder.