The Best Intentions Review

In the summer of 1909, a theology student surviving on a meagre loan from his aunts, met the daughter of a wealthy family living in the ecclesiastical centre of Sweden, Uppsala. They married and raised children, the second of which was named Ingmar. The family surname was Bergman and their second child grew up to become one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. In 1991, Ingmar wrote a mini-series for television about his parents, Den Goda Viljan, known in English as The Best Intentions, which was directed by Bille August. Originally running over five hours, it was cut down to three hours for cinema release and won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.

The film is deeply serious, startlingly intelligent and unpredictable. Although it is basically a love story about two people living wildly different lives who fall instantly in love, it soon takes a considerably darker tone. Ingmar’s father, here called Henrik (Froler), meets with severe disapproval from the mother of his intended – here called Anna Akerbloom (August) – whose distaste for his background leads to an attempt to blackmail him into breaking the engagement. Meanwhile, his own mother is equally unenthusiastic, considering the Akerblooms to be snobbish pretenders and the match doomed to failure.

But if this were the sum total of the film’s ambitions, it would not be so surprising and substantial. Bergman and August display an ability to pierce into the heart of this relationship to painful effect. It soon becomes apparent that Henrik, who in most films would be the underdog hero, is a self-righteous, unbending prig whose self-obsession is only matched by his inability to give anyone else the emotional support they need. What happens is that Anna becomes the hero of the film; she has the qualities of perseverance, generosity and compassion that her husband lacks. Certainly, she has a touch of the drama queen about her but she has what Henrik so desperately needs –empathy. Pernilla August’s astonishing performance captures the complexity of Anna’s character, going through emotional shades with a directness that is totally fearless and slightly uncomfortable to watch. When Anna and Henrik marry and move to the cold, brutal surroundings of Northern Sweden, a crisis comes to light when it becomes apparent that Henrik’s sense of himself as a classical hero overcoming terrible hardships is diametrically opposed to Anna’s need for human warmth and connection. Although she finds some comfort in nursing the sick, she yearns for the warmth and emotional security of her family home. It’s a measure of Pernilla August’s achievement that we don’t consider this selfish but understand and support it. Samuel Froler’s performance as Henrik is not quite in the same class but he does well to keep us watching a figure who is both unsympathetic and wildly irritating, like one of the husbands in Cries and Whispers. He makes us understand that this annoying man is the product of a culture which has systematically repressed emotion and he demonstrates that Henrik has some positive qualities – his social conscience being the most significant. What makes the film optimistic is that both of these characters have a capacity for change and growth – and this demonstrates that Bergman, after all those years of Scandanavian despair at the follies of mankind, has found an accommodation between the trials and gifts of life.

It might seem incredible now but there was a time when Bille August was considered one of the brightest hopes of European cinema, after this film and his remarkable Pelle the Conqueror. A lot of celluloid has run through a lot of projectors since then of course and August, following flops like House of the Spirits and Smilla’s Feeling For Snow, seems to have been reduced to directing episodes of Young Indiana Jones. But The Best Intentions is proof that his initial reputation was more than warranted. It’s a slow and steady piece of work but consistently compelling; August accumulates small details which, over the course of three hours, eventually pay off in the satisfying but far from traditionally happy, ending. Jorgen Persson’s cinematography during the first half is as rich and nostalgic as the second half is chilly. Like Sven Nykvist’s work on Fanny and Alexander, the end result is completely cinematic despite the film’s television origins. The images stay with you – Anna being moved through a hospital on a trolley with vast mountains in the background; the Bergman family clutching each other against the cold Northern Swedish night; a troubled child carrying the Bergman's baby son down through the snow to the freezing sea; the warmth of the family Christmas in Uppsala; and the final moment of the couple sitting on separate park benches, together but apart. August also does wonders with his supporting cast, amongst whom Max Von Sydow stands out in the role of Anna’s ageing father who wants nothing but a fulfilling life for his beloved daughter.

Bergman fans will, naturally, have a ball spotting points of reference to the maestro’s films - Fanny and Alexander is a key touchstone, as are Winter Light and Cries and Whispers and the presence of Von Sydow - but even those with no knowledge of Bergman’s earlier work should find this accessible. Certainly, it’s intimidatingly long but it has a cumulative power which results from the deliberate pacing and it occasionally explodes in riveting scenes of confrontation which are pointed, hurtful and overwhelmingly true.

The Disc

The Best Intentions has been on many Bergman fans ‘wanted list’ for a long time now and Park Circus have finally brought it to DVD in Region 2. It’s the three-hour cinema version which is fine to be going on with but one hopes that we will get the full 323 minute version in the future.

The film is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s an excellent, pristine transfer with plenty of detail and rich colours throughout. Only a slight excess of grain occasionally mars the overall impression. The mono soundtrack does its job very well with the lovely, gentle music score coming across particularly nicely.

The only extras on the disc are trailers for this movie, Henri Georges Clouzot’s Inferno and Vigo: A Passion For Life.

Park Circus are to be congratulated for bringing this exceptional film to DVD in such good condition. Some more extras would have been nice of course, but fans of the film are unlikely to be disappointed.

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