Well, I reckon Ingrid Bergman doesn't have to be in America and potentially harassed by Alfred Hitchcock to make successful films, but I reckon she finally died in 1982 because she couldn't handle juggling both "A Woman Called Golda" and her directorial debut, unless, of course, she's been in a theater somewhere out there watching this film and "A Woman Called Golda" back-to-back for the past thirty-one years. Oh no, wait, this film is directed by Ing[u]mar[/u] Bergman, which should tell you that the Swedes aren't exactly as creative with their bebis names as they are with their films' runtime. Man, I'd like to say that this film's title always makes me think of "Nicholas and Alexandra", but if you thought that "Nicholas and Alexandra" was long then, well, this film is probably not going to be any longer than you, because the 189-minute-long version would probably be more than enough for you. Well, while you superficial moviegoers who think that "The Return of the King" is as long as a film can possibly get are off watching about a whole two hours get mercilessly hacked away from this inspired achievement in European cinema, we film critics shall watch this film like it was meant to be seen, whether it be because we are more appreciative of the artistic vision or because, well, we don't really have anything else to do for five hours and a quarter. Shoot, the film took home Best Foreign Language Film when it wasn't but three hours, so that version couldn't have been too messed up, but then again, Ingmar Bergman already had two of those awards under his belt by 1982, so the Oscars were pretty much obligated to at least give him something for his big passion project. Either way, the point is that this film's original five-hour+ version isn't the most necessary extended version out there, and sometimes I just have to glance at this runtime while I'm trying to keep up with subtitles and wonder just what in the world I'm doing with my life. Oh well, enough about "La Commune (Paris, 1871)", let's move on to this long European film which is actually quite good, though unfortunately with plenty of time to pick up some shortcomings throughout whichever hefty length it runs.
I've only seen this film's director's cut, but I've skimmed through some of the earlier bits of the theatrical cut and can tell you that, whichever version of this film you see, the first segment - which runs about an hour in the theatrical cut and just over a whopping hour-and-a-half - focuses on a subplot involving the titular leads' adult relatives that may have some kind of thematic significance in the long run when it comes to this coming-of-age epic, but does not connect with the central plot as organically as it should and inspires focal unevenness, something that does not disappear as the film progresses, because even though this character study doesn't cover its leads' evolution from childhood to, say, old age, not all of this layered story's dynamic chapters flow into each other as comfortably as they probably should. The level of incoherency in this film certainly peaks with the borderline superfluous first segment, so the chapter changes after that are hardly all that jarring, but there is a bit of inconsistency here, settled down a bit by the film's at least keeping consistent with one aspect through the segments. Considering its hefty lengthy, it would only be matter of time before the film hit a slow spell, but there's not excusing the film's being all but consistently slow, rarely to a dull extent, but decidedly to an extent where things go blanded... or whatever up by anything from a bit too much quietness to a somewhat cold atmosphere that limps pacing down, something that this film cannot afford to lose a grip on, considering the final product's length, or rather, lengths. Whether we're looking at the theatrical cut that stops just shy of 190 minutes, or the definitive director's cut that stops just shy of five hours and a quarter, this film asks for quiet the investment of your time, and really, it doesn't always pay off, bloating itself with excess material, maybe even filler (Seriously, what was up with the relatives' being the primary focus of the first segment?), until repetition sets in, occasionally to devolve into aimlessness, at least within the director's cut which is so long that narrative rises and falls become relatively sparse, bridged by overlong coasting spells. The theatrical cut of the film had to have lost much substance, because no matter how long this film's definitive version may be, two hours is a whole lot of time to excise, though I'm sure more than a few pieces of excess fat got trimmed around the edges, and yet, I doubt that this film's shorter, less realized version is that much tighter, because, well, I skimmed through the theatrical cut enough to tell you that it still has that blasted unfitting first segment, but also because you can feel in the atmosphere of the film itself that Ingmar Bergman would stop at nothing to get this film as packed as he could with material. Bergman is just so ambitious with this project, and I understand and respect that, because this is such a personal project, and one that he does a lot of justice to more often than not, but at the same time, when Bergman makes a mistake, his palpable passion only makes you more aware of his vision's shortcomings, of which there quite a few, - from focal unevenness to pacing unevenness - and enough for the final product to fall short of its potential. That being said, the film is likely to reward the patient, arguably not as much as Bergman had hopes, but certainly enough for you to be compelled, at least by the final product's artistic value.
When I said that this film gets to be a bit too quiet for its own good, I sure didn't mean that you have to put up with whispers, if any kind of dialogue at all, but I did mean that musical compliments to atmospheric kick are considerably unevenly used, so you shouldn't expect to hear much from Daniel Bell's score, which is a shame, because when Bell's very classically tasteful compositions come into play, while they don't have too much in the way of uniqueness or kick, they are lovely, and help in driving the selling of this film, much like Anna Asp's art direction, which isn't too outstanding, but joins lovely production and costume designs in designing a subtly distinct look for this film's environment that draw you into early 20th century Sweden pretty comfortably. The visual artistry of the film isn't all that celebrated, but it is more played up than the musical artistry, and does quite a bit to breathe some life into this film, and cinematographer Sven Nykvist, realizing this, does, well, only so much to compliment the film's visual style, doing only so much that's all that impressive with color and lighting, but still delivering enough to soak up a fair degree of rich definition, sometimes near-gorgeously. Okay, earlier, when I stated that this film at least compel on an artistic level, maybe I was going a touch too far, because this film isn't as celebratory of its artistic value as I was expecting, but when artistry is played up, whether it be of a musical nature or of a visual nature, it does keep you going, just not as much as the heart of this project: the substance. There's a certain minimalism to this overlong epic, but no matter how much this film gets a bit too tightened up for its own good in its abridged cut, or gets a bit carried away when it comes to finding stuff to run out the clock with in the definitive director's cut, the value of this compelling family and coming-of-age drama cannot be ignored, and it's not like Ingmar Bergman will let you ignore the value of this story, even as screenwriter, turning in a clever script that boasts realist and, of course, extensive characterization, which steadily fleshes out considerable dramatic and thematic weight, really brought to life when Bergman, as director, becomes inspired enough in his thoughtful storytelling to draw the depths of this drama out, sometimes as mighty moving. From the powerful sequence in which our leads face their first tragedy: the death of their father, to other heavy events which will shape the children, and even their relatives, there are some pretty effective dramatic highlights here and there throughout this film, which is pretty rarely less than compelling, and for that, much, maybe even most of the credit is due to Bergman's obviously inspired storytelling, but you must not disregard the anchors of this character drama's weight: the performers. I wasn't exactly going in fearing more than a few acting hiccups, but I was not expecting the performers to be as inspired as they are, because even though sparse heights in dramatic material hold the acting back, most everyone delivers, whether it be Bertil Guve and Pernilla Allwin as the titular leads whose layers as budding youths coming of age go sold by their young portrayers, or the older performers - particularly Ewa Fröling - who hit on plenty of striking emotional beats which sell you on the struggles of the adult characters. Most everyone delivers, to one degree or another, whether they be on the screen or off of it, and while the film isn't carried so far that it's three hours tremendously well-spent, let alone five-and-a-quarter, it's rewarding, overcoming focal and pacing problems enough to compel through most every one of its 189 or 311 minutes.
In conclusion, there is a touch of focal unevenness at times, as well as pacing unevenness which blands things up, and often leaves you to meditate upon how the film, no matter which version you're watching, is a bit too long, to where lengthiness joins an overwhelming sense of ambition in giving shortcomings time to into perspective as enough for the final product to fall short of its potential, but not so short that the lovely, if seriously underused score, immersive, if a bit underproduced art direction, attractive, if somewhat improvable cinematography, and thoroughly engaging story concept - done justice by well-rounded writing, effective highlights in direction and inspired performances - aren't enough to carry Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander" as a flawed, but ultimately consistently compelling coming-of-age epic.
3/5 - Good