An epic story of mismatched love shaped in the most intimate terms, the Ingmar Bergman-scripted “The Best Intentions” packs a sustained emotional wallop that lightens its three-hour span. Focusing on the early years of the Swedish helmer’s strong-willed parents, it’s a powerful confirmation of the talents of Danish-born director Bille August, who hit the international limelight three years ago with the gritty Oscar-winning costumer “Pelle the Conqueror.” Pic should attract solid art-house biz on the back of the filmmaker’s rep and critical support.
Bergman first had the idea when writing his reminiscences “The Magic Lantern” and, after finishing the script in 1989, sent it to August, whose “Bille” he admired. Exec producer Ingrid Dahlberg, head of Swedish web SVT1’s drama department, assembled the 67-million-kronor ($ 11 million) budget from a slew of European broadcasters. Pic’s eight-month shoot started in July 1990, with separate scripts for a six-hour TV version (aired last December in Scandinavia) and the present three-hour theatrical release.
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Story spans 10 crucial years in the relationship of Henrik Bergman (Samuel Froler) and Anna Akerblom (Pernilla August), from their first meeting in 1909 to the early summer of 1918. (Real names of Bergman’s parents were Erik and Karin; other characters’ names are unchanged.) He’s a financially strapped theology student in the university town of Uppsala, and she’s the strong-minded daughter of rich, doting parents (Ghita Norby, Max von Sydow).
Henrik finally admits he’s been seeing another woman, Frida (Lena Endre). Despite that, Anna hangs in and they make love; but Henrik is forced to withdraw when Anna’s mother puts her foot down. Only when Anna’s father dies– while she and mom are vacationing in Italy–are the two finally allowed to meet again, in a moving scene some 80 minutes in that effectively wraps the story’s exposition.
Pic’s remainder follows the couple to the northern village of Forsboda, where Henrik’s been posted as a pastor. Rifts between the now-married couple deepen when they take in a withdrawn kid, Petrus (Elias Ringquist); the strain proves too much for Anna, and when Petrus tries to drown their young baby she finally starts to rebel against her husband’s obsessive Samaritanism.
As Henrik becomes more solitary, Anna starts to pine for the comforts of home down south, angered that he’s rejected a comfortable royal posting in Stockholm. She finally packs her bags and moves back in with mother. Pic ends with a shamed Henrik asking for a second chance as Anna is already swollen with the future Ingmar.
Unlike Bergman’s own “Fanny and Alexander,” with which the film shares some crossover themes, “Best Intentions” eschews a busy canvas of characters in favor of a simple story about two lovers separated by their ideals. Bergman’s script succinctly weaves in refs to themes explored in his own earlier films, notably the destructive force of worship when used as a crutch for human weaknesses.
Pic essentially breaks down into a series of eloquent conversation pieces separated by transitional material, with the graceful arc of the couple’s attraction providing the dramatic glue. The movie could as well have been titled “Despite Everything.”
The emotional core remains firmly in female hands. Despite an opening sequence that stresses the stubbornness behind Henrik’s boyish exterior, the real running is made by Anna, especially when she finds herself gradually sidelined by the demands of her husband’s work in the simple northern community. The couple’s angry head-to-head after their move north, in which their different social backgrounds become an issue for the first time, is all the more powerful for the pic’s emotional restraint during the first half, in which both were united by the common enemy of her parents’ opposition.
Further tightening the focus is the lack of any chronology (no dates are ever provided) and shortage of socio-historical backgrounding. Current version includes brief refs to striking workers and exploitative bosses, and a couple of crowd sequences, but that’s it. At every stage, the focus is kept tight on the couple’s emotional ups and downs.
As the tunnel-visioned Henrik, Froler sometimes seems a shade lightweight but packs quite a punch (literally as well as dramatically) in his sudden outbursts of rage. It is August, however, who carries the pic’s heart and soul in a performance that is sure to garner awards: Although a mite old-looking in the early scenes, the Swedish thesp (wife of the director and, as Pernilla Ostergren , the maid Maj in “Fanny and Alexander”) holds the screen in a series of throat-catching sequences.
Supporting players are all on the money, with Danish actress Norby working wonders with the two-faced role of Anna’s mother, and Von Sydow turning in a fine extended cameo as her ultimately weak father. Other roles are virtually bits, but both Endre, as Henrik’s other woman, and Lennart Hjulstrom, as a local bigshot, deliver in their set-piece scenes. Vet actress Anita Bjork gets a lot into a brief spot as Queen Viktoria.
Jorgen Persson’s crystalline lensing of the Swedish exteriors (with some lustrous sidebars in sun-drenched Italy and Switzerland) is matched by the movie’s precision-tool editing and director August’s immaculate compositions. Stefan Nilsson’s underscoring, more frequent than in many Scandi pix, effectively juxtaposes a bare piano melody with a warmer string theme but is short on real development. Costuming and production design are both richly detailed.