Bergman Island

Chris and Tony

French writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve genuflects before the master, Ingmar Bergman, in her playful and reverential drama set on Fårö (pronounced foe-rer, more or less), the island where Bergman wrote and shot some of his films, and which is now dedicated to promoting his legacy.

In meta fashion, Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony are a pair of film-makers arriving on Fårö to seek inspiration for the next projects they are working on. Renting the house where Bergman once shot parts of Scenes from a Marriage, or so they (and we) are told by the woman showing them around, they get down to work, him beavering away in the bedroom, her in the mill next door, and us waiting for life to start imitating art (or should that be art imitating life imitating art imitating life?).

Between times they visit the screening cinema where HE once showed his films, and Tony, clearly the more successful of the two, gives talks to fans of his work. There is also a Bergman Safari to go on, full of the sort of people you’d expect to see on a Bergman Safari – a bit older, grizzled, hairy, earnest, polite, intellectual and Nordic looking, for the most part.

At a certain point Chris gets stuck on what she’s writing and starts telling her story to Tony, in an attempt to break the logjam. A movie within a movie suddenly starts up, this one with Mia Wasikowska in it, as Amy, a forlorn young woman visiting Fårö (again) and bumping into Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), an old flame for whom the fire still burns strongly.

Amy, too, is a Bergman nut, and in her world there is also Bergmanesque angst to be experienced. She’s on the island for a wedding and it (and Joseph) fan the embers of her smouldering love back into a passionate roar. Anthems of the lovelorn, such as Abba’s The Winner Takes It All and the Tina Charles hit I Love to Love (But My Baby Just Wants to Dance), start popping up on the soundtrack.

Amy and Joseph
Amy and Joseph

See-sawing between these two stories – though more interested in Amy’s it must be said – Hansen-Løve has a couple more tricks up her arthouse sleeve, neither of which is exactly unexpected. First, she pushes the meta-trickery a bit more – so what starts out as a story about a Bergman nut told by a Bergman nut in a film written and made by a Bergman nut – becomes slightly more complex as elements of Story A start popping up in Story B. And then taking the meta to the point of metastasisation, Hansen-Løve reminds us that the whole thing is a dramatic construct when one of her characters uses another character’s actual real-life name.

Like the Bergman Safari that visits the locations where the Swedish auteur’s movies were shot, this is a tour of Bergmanland, or Bergmania, done with nods to the austere style of the man himself and so it won’t mean half as much to those who have no knowledge of Bergman’s s work as to those who do.

If you are a fan, this film is for you. And Hansen-Løve chucks the odd bit of meat to the out-and-out haters – “Maybe three critics thought he was amazing,” one Fårö resident abruptly says to Amy at a party. “But there is a world outside your own asshole. Fuck Bergman!” he continues, clearly sick of never being half as fascinating as a man who died in 2007.

There’s also, handled with a certain amount of delicacy, the question of Bergman the man versus Bergman the artist. How did he manage to be so prolific and also father nine children by six different women? Answer: the women did the child-rearing. Bergman dealt with the “pram in the hall” (as the critic Cyril Connolly termed the artistically stultifying effect of domesticity) by walking right past it.

The plaintive folk music of Robin Williamson, of The Incredible String Band fame, is used liberally and adds a whiff of the pagan to everything – Smiles on a Midsommar Night, if you like. There’s no death, no screaming, it’s all very civilised. And yet, under it all, dark forces are lurking in this strange, evocative and bizarrely compelling drama. Perhaps, under it all, it is a horror movie.

Bergman Island – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema: Criterion’s lavish box set containing 39 Bergman films – buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

The Liability

Jack O'Connell and Tim Roth in The Liability



Starting great but ending merely good, this British thriller full of deadpan laughs is sexy, nasty and features two great actors, Tim Roth and Peter Mullan. It even boasts a starmaking performance by Jack O’Connell as The Liability.


The genre is announced before the opening credits, as a man in a car parked somewhere bleak but lit with the rainbow palette of an acolyte of Christopher Doyle is gruesomely garrotted from the rear passenger seat by someone we never see.


Except it isn’t. The genre we thought it was, I mean. Cut to Adam (Jack O’Connell) a total dipstick who has borrowed his mum’s boyfriend’s C Class Mercedes and is razzing it up and down the road, until he inevitably prangs it, which causes mum’s boyfriend Peter to get very angry with him indeed. Since Mum’s boyfriend is played by Peter Mullan, “very angry” is only scratching the surface of his rage – there is much worse to come.


It’s somewhere around here that we’re again re-introduced to the thriller plot that is going to be the undoing of this otherwise rather fabulous little film – Peter appears to be involved in sex trafficking. Possibly. Who knows? He seems the type.


Cut to the next day and Adam is now driving Roy (Tim Roth), a blank-faced hitman, up the motorway to a job somewhere, this being part of Adam’s payback for the shitload of damage he’s done to Peter’s car. At this point John Wrathall’s screenplay poses a question – is our hitman just a hitman, or is he also a notorious serial killer called the Handyman, news of whose bloody progress is is being delivered by car radio bulletins and shots of newspaper headlines? Why the film is asking this question I really don’t know. For the purposes of jeopardy isn’t a naive kid sitting in a car with a hitman enough already?


But as Adam and Roy motor up the country, the film starts to rev up too, Roy’s deadpan responses to Adam’s incessant witless drivelling making for  beautiful double-act comedy in scene after scene of funny back and forth. “Gizzago” says Adam at one point, wanting to get in on this hitman lark. “Gizzago?” replies Roy, incredulously. Well it made me laugh.


At somewhere around this point, as Adam and Roy pause in the woods to kill someone, an innocent hiker, Talulah Riley, wanders onto the scene and the film starts to wander off it. It’s not her fault. Riley is there to deliver sex by the metric tonne, which she does. But she also signals the full arrival of Plot B (sex trafficking), which seems as unnecessary to the film as the whole hitman-as-Handyman business.


On the upside this is a film about archetypes that locks straight in, and does it unapologetically. The hitman, the liability, the liability’s unbelievably violent stepfather, his slutty mother, the sexy girl – that’s just about everyone who’s in this low-budget affair.


When it’s working at its best The Liability is at its most character-driven. The cast really helps. When you hire people like Mullan or Roth you expect the sort of acting you can stand a spoon up in. 22-year-old O’Connell more than holds his own against this lot and that must mark him out as something special.


But the film is merely good not great. Sadly the whole back end, Riley vengeful in the sex-trafficking storyline, sees the character-driven thrust abandoned. An almost elemental plot centring on an odd-couple double-act – the totally professional hitman and the waste-of-space sidekick – has been junked in favour of a thriller finish.


Mind you, this finale in a waterworks pumphouse does at least allow cinematographer James Friend to get his Christopher Doyle gels back out again, the ones he was using in the car park before the opening credits. So the film ends as it began – looking great, gnarly, thrillerish. But it’s the film sandwiched in between these bookends that is the one to watch.



© Steve Morrissey 2013




The Liability – at Amazon