Fanny and Alexander is showing in selected cinemas now.
Sitting down to watch an Ingmar Bergman film is similar to unwrapping a Christmas present – you have no idea what’s inside, but you’re eagerly excited to discover its contents. As it reaches its 40th anniversary, the BFI has gifted a present of their own in the form of the beautifully remastered Fanny and Alexander just in time for Christmas.
Taking a semi-autobiographical approach, the festive drama follows the lives of siblings Fanny and Alexander Ekdahl throughout a year in their life, with the first hour primarily anchored to a prolonged glimpse into the tensions and tenderness of an extended family Christmas. We wander through lavish manor-like drawing and dining rooms, flush with warm, inviting crimson and mahogany tones. Here we get a sense of the Ekdhal’s entire family, from magnanimous grandmother matriarch Helena to flatulent-firing uncle Carl, with every individual feeling like a fully sketched portrait. It almost feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, as we stay with the family from morning until the early hours of Boxing Day. By this time, we feel deeply acquainted with the Ekdahls and their relationships with one another. This pregnant respite with the extended family is by design from Bergman – it’s the last respite for Fanny and Alexander before a most challenging year.
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What unfolds over the film’s remaining two hours are a myriad of narrative and thematic influences that all slowly merge to create an incredible stew, bubbling and condensing until it reaches that perfect, profound richness that only Bergman knows how to make. The subsequent rise of wicked stepfather Bishop Edvard in tandem with Alexander’s spectral visions of his deceased father, paints this period drama with strokes of Hamlet, elevated by a sense of world-ending drama from the siblings’ perspective. There’s a great solemnity granted to the siblings’ resolve even in the face of one of the most Machiavellian men put to screen – Alexander’s multiple showdowns with the Bishop are at once tremendously thrilling and yet wholly unnerving, in no small part due to Jan Malmsjo’s sinister banality.
Fanny and Alexander – book tickets now at BFI Southbank
Perhaps without even realising it, you gradually become enveloped in Bergman’s uniquely magical world as fleetingly inexplicable moments spellbind again and again until you are enchanted. Fanny and Alexander feels like an innately grounded drama set entirely within the wondrously expansive world of a child’s imagination – and that may be due to Bergman’s endearing sincerity with how these magical encounters unfold. It never feels as though the director attempts to trick, mislead or conclude it as just figments of imagination; instead, he wholeheartedly embraces that seeing is believing, something that many modern directors appear to have forgotten. He carefully balances Fanny and Alexander on the precipice between fantasy and reality, leaving the audience to decide where it sits – or simply perch, bewitched by its beauty.
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It is a masterclass in performance from every player in this Swedish-Dickensian story, where every character leaves a memorable mark in your memory. When watching Fanny and Alexander, one somehow feels incredibly old and impossibly young at the same time – yet another of Bergman’s tricks for sure, but how he does it, one would never know to decipher. Maybe it’s because somehow, we all glimpse visions of ourselves and our lives within Bergman’s retelling of his own memories – the most joyful of Christmasses, the hostile winters battled away by hot drinks and thick jumpers. The drama emanates such a pure warmth and unbridled magic that you cannot help but feel like a child again, marvelling at all the wonders Bergman offers you. More than a Christmas classic, this is simply an all-time classic of cinema.