If you’re Swedish, you have more than likely heard of Jan Guillou. Even if you don’t know jack about him his name pops up so much in everyday life and debates and discussions it’s hard to miss him. For non-Swedes though I imagine they’re not as familiar with Mr. Guillou as us Swedes are, so I’ll fill you in on the details. He’s an investigative journalist who reached notoriety in Sweden in 1973 when he and colleague Peter Bratt exposed a secret organization within Swedish Intelligence units unbeknownst to most members of riksdagen and government. This breach in what was considered national security got Guillou, Bratt and their source convicted to jail. He remains a political commentator and writer, and still writes numerous novels regarding Swedish politics, spies and history. But he’s also written a number of books much more autobiographical in nature, one of them being The Evil (Ondskan) from 1981. The accuracy of the details and story have been disputed, but I won’t bother you with any details as I think there are more interesting things to discuss. Eventually it was made into a film in 2003 by filmmaker Mikael Håfström. The film was well received upon release, a box office hit and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that year, loosing to The Barbarian Invasions. Håfström has since gone on to make films in Hollywood to…mixed reception I’d say.
The Evil takes place in the 1950s as young Erik Ponti is experiencing a tough life. His stepfather repeatedly beats and abuses him, sometimes in front of his mother. At school, Erik frequently gets himself into trouble and fights, and after giving a severe beating to one of his classmates he’s expelled from the school. With no grades, he’ll never be able to continue his education and his future is at risk. In desperation, his mother sends Erik off to a prestigious boarding school where he tries to rid himself of his violent tendencies. But he’s frequently picked on by the oldest pupils of the school, who brutalize and abuse the younger students on a daily basis. Erik however, will not simply take it but resists, which leads to all sorts of trouble as you can imagine.
Alright so now that I’ve finally given you enough context, how good is the film itself? It’s sometimes regarded as one of the finest Swedish films of all time, and I’m sure it remains quite popular amongst viewers. It does sometimes feel like the kind of movie we’d watch in school, but instead we watched shittier versions of this movie, you just can’t win them all I guess. Anyway my point is that yes, this movie is good in fact, although I have some reservations about a couple of aspects regarding the characterizations and music choices.
First of all, I want to commend the acting in the film. Everyone from Andreas Wilson as Erik Ponti to Swedish icon Kjell Bergqvist is excellent in their respective roles. Wilson manages to be rebellious without being overly dramatic about it and making it believable. Slightly worse off on that front though are the actors playing the older bullies, who can often come across as slightly over-the-top and cartoonish depictions of bullies or people of that type. I’m mostly thinking of the main villain more or less played by none other than Gustaf Skarsgård of the Skarsgård family aka Swedish acting royalty. This is not to say I think they’re necessarily bad, but rather they’re more likely misdirected in my estimation and they’re probably doing the best they can under the circumstances of the direction and script. Other than that aspect, everyone else is commendable in their respective performances. The film does also include, in a fairly minor role it must be said, a teacher who’s a former Nazi played by Mats Bergman, son of Ingmar, and the role feels very reminiscent of the character Caligula from the Bergman-penned film Torment from 1944. In fact upon receiving the role Mats called his father and said “I get to resurrect Caligula!”
I do also have a problem with the music. At first it was often quite nice but as the film went on it became way more hit-and-miss for me. And sometimes I must say it wasn’t necessarily the music itself that I found bothersome (though some of the melodies got on my nerves frankly) but often it felt quite unneeded and sometimes forced even. Some moments on film simply work much better and more dramatically without any music. It’s a tricky balance to know when it’s too much or too obvious, but it’s a balance that when trespassed can still be irritable to the viewer, as it was in my case.
Beyond those aspects there isn’t much to complain about for me. I enjoyed the camerawork very much, often moving in and out of places rather than the same old static handheld cinematography I’ve come to expect so often from Swedish mainstream movies. So instead of feeling like Paul Greengrass it feels much more like Bernardo Bertolucci and his work with the genius Vittorio Storaro. Interestingly enough, I felt like I recognized the style of camerawork from somewhere else, like I had seen the work of this cinematographer before and it nagged on me the whole time as I watched the film. And lo and behold, when I looked up the cinematographer after the film I discovered his name was Peter Mokrosinski, who’s worked a lot with Daniel Afredson, brother of Tomas Alfredson and a director in his own right, who directed a film called Tic Tac in 1997, which was a film written by my film teacher. What a bizarre coincidence. And believe me, I will review Tic Tac one day, that I promise you!
So anyways in short, I like The Evil. Whilst it’s not the cream of the crop in terms of Swedish cinema, we’ve certainly made far worse films and theres a lot more of the good than the bad. And even if Mikael Håfström has never reached this height again since, he’s at least made one solid film. Making any film is hard, so making just one that is merely very good is fairly commendable in its own right.