Fanny and Alexander review – Ingmar Bergman’s dark fusion of Shakespeare and Dickens

Ingmar Bergman’s mysterious and terrifying family drama has a realist structure shaken by tremors of supernatural revelation; it is now rereleased for its 40th anniversary in its three-hour theatrical cut (as opposed to the aggregate five hours of Bergman’s originally intended television version). This is maybe Bergman’s most personal film, inspired by a childhood dominated by his formidable and forbidding Lutheran minister father, Erik. Bergman had an older brother and a younger sister, novelist Margareta Bergman, and I wonder if Margareta ever wondered at how very unimportant “Fanny” actually is in this film: an irrelevance that the title misrepresents.

Fanny and Alexander is a brilliant – in fact maybe unique – fusion of Shakespeare and Dickens, with some Chekhov in an uncle’s morose musings on his own failure and mediocrity and also some Strindberg – “that nasty misogynist” as the grandmother sharply calls him when asked by her daughter to produce his A Dream Play at the family theatre.

Helena (Gunn Wållgren) is the widowed matriarch of the Ekdahl family in early 20th-century Uppsala: her closest friend now is Izak Jacobi (Erland Josephson) with whom she had a romantic dalliance in her youth. Her sensitive son Oscar (Allan Edwall) is actor-manager of the family-run theatre whose traditions have infused family life with a worldly gaiety and exuberance, especially at Christmas, which is when the tale begins. Another son, Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle), is a conceited, jovial and philandering restaurateur, who in his almost childlike and dependent way is having an affair with the sweet-natured family maid Maj (Pernilla August), to the lenient exasperation of his wife Alma (Mona Malm). The other son Carl (Börje Ahlstedt) is a miserably failing businessman, pestering his dismayed mother for a loan and complaining to his German wife: “How is it one becomes second rate? How does the dust fall?”

When Oscar dies of a stroke while rehearsing the role of Hamlet’s ghostly father, he leaves a distraught widow, Emilie (Ewa Fröling), and two children: the titular Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and her elder brother Alexander (Bertil Guve), a gawky, coltish, watchful boy, tormented by dreamlike visions of his dead father. Perhaps rather old for that sailor suit he wears, Guve strikes me as a distant spiritual cousin of Björn Andrésen’s Tadzio in Death in Venice. Lonely Emilie catastrophically gets married again; to a chillingly smug, puritanical, controlling and antisemitic bishop who sets out to crush Alexander’s spirit, and Emilie’s spirit, also; this is a stunning performance from Jan Malmsjö. The bishop has a sly and duplicitous maidservant, Justina, unforgettably played by Harriet Andersson.

The terrible duel between Alexander and the bishop is the emotional core of the film: its cruelty and abuse, enclosed within the family ethic of submission to authority, irradiates the film with a dark power. I can never watch the bishop cuffing Alexander with irritated, faux-tolerant good humour at the boy’s evident disobedience, or even poking or prodding his head to emphasise some lesson or homily, without feeling those jabs in my own skull. It is deeply disturbing when Alexander is sent to the dusty attic after a beating, where there is a bizarrely discarded wooden crucifix, removed from a church, shoved lopsided into a corner. And of course the bishop’s own fate is to bring in one of the great closeup shock reveals in movie history, as Alexander wanders apparently alone through the house, and someone wearing a crucifix appears behind him. It is also, for me, always amusing that Bergman finally gets a visiting police officer to “explain” a huge plot point, rather as Hitchcock does with a psychiatrist in Psycho.

There is a glorious acting ensemble in this film, an amazing collection of pure performing intelligence. Acting and display are very important here, particularly with the puppet theatre with which Alexander is later to be acquainted in that very late-Shakespearean final act: he and his sister are smuggled out of the bishop’s house in a chest, the bishop himself being shocked or subdued by a vision of the children’s corpses that Izak has managed to conjure. Fanny and Alexander also love watching their secret magic lantern show in their bedroom, powered by kerosene with its giveaway smell. And yet it is all heading to old age, of which Emilie says: “One is old and a child at the same time. What became of those long years in between that seemed so important at the time?”

On a visit to London this year, Liv Ullmann spoke publicly about being offered the role of Emilie by Bergman, and his astonishment and anger at her turning it down, perhaps because of a need to escape his patriarchal authority, an irony which may or may not have been apparent at the time. How would she have played the role? Perhaps with less innocence, less obliviousness of what was in store for her. But there is a great poignancy in Fröling’s performance, and this is a stunning movie.

• Fanny and Alexander is released on 2 December in cinemas.