Sunday, August 17, 2014

Evil (2003)

Director: Mikael Håfström                               Writers: Hans Gunnarson & Mikael Håfström
Film Score: Francis Shaw                               Cinematography: Peter Mokrosinski
Starring: Andreas Wilson, Gustaf Skarsgård, Henrik Lundström and Linda Zilliacus

What is evil? It’s a fascinating question when it’s looked at from a very different angle. That’s what Mikael Håfström’s film Evil (Ondskan) attempts to do, and it does it extremely well, good enough to earn an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. The film is based on the autobiographical novel by Jan Guillou, a huge bestseller in Sweden when it was first published in 1981. Guillou waited so long to sell the rights because the story was so important to him. Attempts had been made earlier, but didn’t feel right to Guillou, especially a suggestion to make the story into a television series. Once Håfström brought in his writing partner Hans Gunnarson to collaborate, however, the production was green lighted and went right into pre-production. The film was as big a hit in Sweden as the book had been and, in addition to the Oscar nomination, was awarded three Swedish film awards, for best film, best cinematography, and best production.

The film is set in the fifties and begins with Andreas Wilson as a deeply troubled boy. At home his stepfather, Johan Rabaeus, beats him regularly for seemingly inconsequential things, and so Wilson takes it out on other kids at school as the leader of a gang. After beating yet other kid bloody the headmaster of the high school calls him evil and he’s expelled permanently. The only problem is, he doesn’t seem to care. But his mother, Marie Richardson, is unable to leave the stepfather and she sells some family heirlooms in order to send Wilson to boarding school, his one and only chance to finish high school. At the school he meets the rich Gustaf Skarsgård, whose single regret is that the school cannot afford stables for his horses. His roommate is the nerdy Henrik Lundström who likes Charlie Parker and the movies. The only women on the campus are the girls who serve the meals to the boys and the male faculty. When the upper classmen like Skarsgård begin pulling rank and ordering Wilson around, he refuses, and since the punishment is weekend detention that’s fine by him because he doesn’t want to go home anyway. He even has an opportunity to fight back legitimately in “the ring” but refuses because he believes he’ll be expelled from school anyway. For that, he’s called Rat by all of the upper classmen.

What happens next is the most fascinating element of the film. Wilson, who was called “evil” by his former headmaster, turns out to be the good guy in all of this. Granted, it’s because he is desperate not to be expelled, but it’s still a legitimate motivation for him not to give in to violence. But, like the British Empire in the face of Ghandi in India, this only incites the upper classmen to more school-sanctioned violence. And in that context, it is the upper classmen who exhibit true evil in the picture. But there are other layers of evil that are only hinted at. One of the history professors in the school gives regular lectures on eugenics, pulling students up to the front of the room to comment on their physiognomy. He is, we are told, one of the Nazi sympathizers still left over from World War Two which ended just a few years earlier. And when the upper classmen can’t get to Wilson directly, they begin working on Lundström, who has his own issues to work out in confronting the evil of the older students. The other interesting aspect of the film is its relationship to Rebel Without a Cause. Like James Dean, Andreas Wilson’s character is on the side of right and his girlfriend, Linda Zilliacus, is the only lifeline he has left in the world.

Wilson’s hiring came about only after a lengthy casting process in which Håfström could not find a leading man. With only two weeks to go before filming, the director remembered a boy he had seen at a party, contacted him, and gave him the part. Wilson’s brooding countenance is perfect for the role, and his seemingly introspective nature works very well on the screen. His nemesis at the school is Gustaf Skarsgård, son of the great Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård, and best known today for his role as Floki in the History Chanel series Vikings. Playing the rich upper classman, however, his manner is a bit affected and therefore isn’t as realistic as it might have been, good but not great. Linda Zilliacus as the Finnish servant girl, however, is tremendous. She is so natural and engaging that it’s a shame she didn’t have more screen time. Henrik Lundström as Wilson’s roommate feels a bit like he’s playing a part as well and is also less than convincing, a bit like Frank Whaley in Swing Kids. But the acting is very good overall and Guillou’s story is brought to life effectively by Håfström. Evil isn’t the best film of its type, but it does raise some wonderful philosophical questions and is deserving of much more study and analysis.

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