Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Fanny: The Other Mendelsohn
"Although Fanny's music is allowed to sing out, we don't hear enough of her personal voice." | Photo: Courtesy of DOC NYC

Fanny Mendelssohn stood, like so many women of her age and beyond, in the shadow of a man. Sheila Hayman - who is Fanny's great-great-great-granddaughter - attempts to pull her out from behind her more famous sibling Felix and into the spotlight. The result mixes the biographical with the musical and even a touch of manuscript mystery - the latter by far the strongest element - but there's a scattergun feel to the way the material is presented and the pace is sedate.

Hayman provides the film's narration, which though offering up plenty of information isn't matched by the visuals, so that there's a sensation that virtually everything would lose very little if we were only hearing it via the radio. Merely flagging up key words of letters as they are read out feels like a missed opportunity to breathe more movement into the film in the form of re-enactment or, potentially, animation, which is used elsewhere, though sparingly.

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Despite this lack of flair, there is plenty to interest classical music fans, in particular, as a variety of experts talk about their connection to Fanny's compositions and, in some cases, their life's devotion to rescuing them from obscurity.

Among the contributors is pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, who we see rehearsing and then performing Fanny's once-"lost" Easter Sonata. She's an engaging presence and adeptly guides us through the shape of the music, along with . Also fascinating are the stories of how both Fanny's correspondence and the Easter Sonata manuscript became the subject of detection work by academics Marcia Citron and Angela R Mace.

Although following Fanny's life chronologically, Hayman struggles to make the film flow smoothly between correspondence in the past and details of her life and the efforts of the modern academics to bring her work to a wider audience. There are interesting asides about the continuing bias towards male composers and white musicians but though interesting grace notes, they also feel rather disconnected from Fanny's story. The overall direction of the film is torn between the historical and the current, with the modern world ending up dominating at the expense of us learning more about Fanny's life - given how thick the tome of letters which Citron collected is, there's a sense that much is going left unsaid. Although Fanny's music is allowed to sing out, we don't hear enough of her personal voice.

Reviewed on: 30 Oct 2023
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Documentary about the unsung talents of the sister of famous composer Felix.

Director: Sheila Hayman

Writer: Sheila Hayman

Starring: Alison Langer, Robinson McClellan, Anna Beer, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Éric Heidsieck, Chi-Chi Nwanoku, Isata Kanneh-Mason

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance


DOC NYC 2023

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