Cinematically speaking, the boarding school has been doing well of late courtesy of Harry Potter’s multi-ethnic, co-ed fantasies wherein a little bit of magic will sort out any potential problem. Here to redress the balance is Mikael Häfström’s Evil, a 1950s set Swedish drama which, as the title suggests, doesn’t take the light approach. Indeed, being based on Jan Guillou’s bestselling autobiographic novel, it is anything but as it traces its 16 year old protagonist’s attempts to navigate the even then outdated boarding school system of bullying and automatic privilege.
Yet the title isn’t merely a clue to the overall tone. Evil is also used to describe this very character and herein lies the film added layer. Though young Erik, as he’s called, is labelled as “evil in its purest form” – we first see him brutally attacking a fellow pupil in the schoolyard – he is still ostensibly the hero. This initial incident leads to him being expelled and forced to attend the nearest boarding school – at which point he discovers the “team spirit” whereby the younger pupils are regularly preyed upon with an astonishing level of violence, not to mention the deeply ingrained racism and class frictions.
Of course, this extra dimension prompts certain questions, specifically with regards to why Erik has been made a less than clean cut figure. Certainly, there are autobiographical truths to be considered, yet Evil is often so schematic that such reasoning doesn’t reveal the full answer. This is a film that wishes to make a very clear point and as such all of its angles have to be considered. Moreover, they’ve also been incorporated (manipulated?) into melodramatic devices so that the required response is a given.
Thus Erik’s violent tendencies are explained away by a dead father and a brutal stepfather who dishes out abuse to both himself and his mother. Plus such easy reasoning continues once he reaches the boarding school. Indeed, Erik’s demeanour only serves to muddy slightly what would otherwise be crystal clear waters; Evil adopts a very basic schematic which follows all of the expected paths. Firstly, Erik stands up to the bullies, then he appears to have the upper hand, then they focus their attentions on his considerably weaker friends (one of whom allows for some extra dashes of sentimentality) before he’s allowed his final triumph, one which ties up all of the loose ends and seemingly suggests nothing more than a complete “happy ever after”-style ending such is the simplicity of the problems to be overcome and the manner in which they’ve all been spelled out.
All of which would suggest a thoroughly mainstream work – and, indeed, Evil was Sweden’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, eventually making the shortlist of nominees. As such any acceptance of the film comes down to the viewer’s own discretion, though if it is taken on its own terms, then Evil does prove itself to be a well-made piece of entertainment. The period detail, for example, is pleasingly captured without proving too distracting. Häfström keeps things rattling along at a fair pace. And debuting actor Andreas Wilson, as Erik, gives a fine, charismatic performance.
Yet this general level of competence all round also proves frustrating as it suggests, therefore, that Evil could have been a much better work. Whilst it succeeds on its own basic levels and handles the tiny moments especially well (it is the characters on the sidelines, as it were, who tell us more about the overall system and the levels of complicity than those within the viewer’s central focus), its bigger themes have been rendered far too simply in its aims to please as many people as possible.
Released by Metrodome, Evil comes to the UK as a Region 2 disc garnered with some noteworthy extras. More importantly, it also offers fine presentation complete with anamorphic enhancement and DD5.1 sound. The image is consistently clear and handles the autumnal look to the film extremely well. Given that much of the film takes place either at night or in dingy rooms and corridors, this is greatly appreciated and Evil never once disappoints. As for the soundtrack, we get the original Swedish 5.1 mix, plus optional stereo. The latter is therefore of little importance, though both remain crisp and clean throughout, handling both the dialogue and over-insistent score with ease. The English subtitles are optional.
The key extra is a lengthy interview with Jan Guillou, author of the original novel. At 35-minutes this is able to cover plenty of ground, from his struggles to get the film made to the casting of Andreas Wilson in the lead role. Indeed, such is the depth that most of what he says is recycled in the ‘making of’ featurette, though here he is joined by the likes of Wilson himself and director Häfström. Of course, this piece is understandably lighter fare being a fairly standard EPK offering, though it proves engaging enough despite the repetitions.
Elsewhere on the disc we also find a trio of deleted scenes (none of which prove too important), plus a pair a trailers. As with the main feature, all of these pieces come with optional English subtitles.