By Peter Travers
January 16, 1989 12:00 PM

Max von Sydow, the Swedish actor renowned for his work in 11 Ingmar Bergman films including The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring, is probably best known in America for his eponymous role in The Exorcist. Since last working with Bergman nearly two decades ago, Von Sydow, 59, has largely squandered his gifts on Hollywood glitz (Flash Gordon, Never Say Never Again). Now, playing an indigent, boozing, weak-kneed widower who sails from Sweden to Denmark at the turn of the century with the vain hope of making a better life for his young son, Pelle, he rises to the challenge of a great role. Acting with wrenching simplicity and power, Von Sydow is magnificent. The movie, though, is maddeningly mediocre. Given the acclaim lavished on this earnest, 150-minute epic (it took the top film prize at Cannes), such criticism may sound like heresy. But writer-director Bille (Twist and Shout) August has adapted the first part of Danish Nobel prizewinner Martin Andersen Nexo’s four-volume novel as if in fear of leaving anything out. The characters and twisting subplots have been compared with Dickens’. Try Dynasty. Stone Farm, where Von Sydow labors with his son—strikingly well-played by Pelle Hvenegaard, then age 11—is a microcosm in which the haves exploit the have-nots. There is the farm’s lecherous owner, his alcoholic wife, his deformed bastard son, his sadistic manager, his comely niece. Stir in a shipwreck, a workers’ rebellion, infanticide, incest and castration. The effect of these events on father and son is part of the novel’s fabric. Onscreen, Von Sydow and Hvenegaard disappear for great chunks of time or are reduced to mere observers. A crucial thread, the one that binds us to the two central characters, is lost. The movie—ravishingly photographed by Jorgen (Elvira Madigan) Persson—dazzles with incident but fails to find the human focus to validate a lasting claim on the heart. (Not rated; in Danish with subtitles)