The three sons of the widowed Helena (Gunn Wållgren) are involved in local businesses and in the theater. They are Gustav Adolf, Carl, and Oscar, who is Fanny and Alexander's father, and much older than his beautiful wife, Emilie. Then there is Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson), the Jewish family friend and Helena's ex-lover. With his nephew Aron (Mats Bergman, the director's son), Isak runs the local puppet and magic shop in town. Aron's brother Ismael is locked away because he is either dangerous, preternaturally gifted, or both.
When Oscar suddenly dies during a rehearsal for Hamlet — whose narrative provides this tale's spine — everything changes for the worse. Bishop Vergerus insinuates himself into the life and heart of Emilie Ekdahl; a year after Oscar's death, they marry, thus dooming the two children to life under the psychotic Bishop's thumb.
In the shorter version, Emilie's reasons for this obviously ill match are never made clear, but in the longer version we early on learn that the young and beautiful Emilie has had lovers behind Oscar's back. Perhaps she feels she needs to atone for betraying her dead husband by either punishing or cleansing herself with a life of asceticism with the Bishop.
We also learn that the Bishop's first wife and two daughters drowned fifteen years earlier, possibly because of the Bishop's wrongdoing. The Bishop, in fact, turns out to be one of the great portraits of pure evil in film history, making life hell for Alexander.
It is only in the TV version that the depths and joys of the Ekdahls' is plumbed fully. There are longer sequences at the opening Christmas Eve party; a deeper exploration of Carl Ekdahl and his put-upon German wife Lydia (Christina Schollin) — their marriage, his rages, and his own business failings and debts, which mirror the flaws of the Bishop; a deeper look at Emilie's rationale, and her later hatred of the Bishop; more of life at the theater, especially a great sequence onstage with Ingmar Bergman's first film star, Gunnar Björnstrand, as actor Filip Landahl; and more of Alexander's imagination, especially in two key scenes deleted from the shorter version.
Fanny and Alexander offers some interesting bits of symbolism as well, and were it not for the sheer depth and power of the larger tale being woven some of it might feel a bit too heavy-handed, e.g., the barren mausoleum-like household of the Bishop vs. the red and lush interior of the Ekdahl residence. It is clear that the families approach life differently, but in a film like this such sharp contrasts are not really necessary; the characters themselves convey such differences. Inanimata need not be employed to underline what Bergman's dialogue and script so aptly do.
The marvelous five-disc DVD put out by The Criterion Collection is one of the best jobs that company has done. There is a single disc with the theatrical version, which — hallelujah! — comes with an English-language soundtrack option. That disc also features an excellent film commentary by Bergman film scholar Peter Cowie.
Cowie is often a hit-and-miss commentator, but this time he's well on target, maintaining an informed and leisurely pace throughout the film's three-plus-hour running time. Although scripted, he conveys an ease and breadth of knowledge of the film and actors that rarely gets didactic. We get helpful anecdotes, interesting insights, and even some rationales for specific scenes or artistic choices, as well as bits of trivia that will delight film fanatics.
On the downside, Cowie does make some unsupported statements, such as coming up with the chronological order of the three Ekdahl brothers, or telling us that Helena Ekdahl was half-Jewish. These are 'facts' supposedly gleaned from Bergman's notes for the film, but appear nowhere within the film's body. Also, in the scene where Oscar's ghost first reappears, Cowie claims that unlike Alexander, Fanny does not see him. Yet, Fanny has clearly seen the ghost, for she alerts Alexander to it and her eyes are as transfixed in his direction as Alexander's. These flaws are minor quibbles, however, in an otherwise top-notch commentary.