Dir: Mikael Hafstrom. 2003. Swe. 113 mins

Evil (Ondskan), the third feature of Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom, plays well enough on the big screen but, aside from likely appearances at a few of the bigger festivals like Toronto, where it showed in the Contemporary World Cinema section, it's not sufficiently accomplished for wide international distribution. That said, its selection as Sweden's nomination for the Best Foreign Language Oscar may help attract interest.

Based on a well-known autobiographical novel by Jan Guillou, which was published in 1981, the film appears to be set in the 1950s but never wholly commits to establishing the period beyond featuring characters who, for example, listen to jazz and refer to Rebel Without A Cause.

An overt study of the corrosive effect of violence, Evil, which is set at a prestigious boarding school called Stjarnsberg, is ostensibly a plea for the dignity and worth of the individual but seems at least as much intended as an occasion for heavy sado-masochist titillation. (There is also a lot of urination and faeces-dumping on enemies.) This is one of those films (the prototype is Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange) that tsk-tsks about violence while all the while happily loading it on.

Still, despite a clunky screenplay that relies too much on an avalanche of dialogue for its exposition, its James Dean-style lead, Andreas Wilson, holds the screen well and will keep viewers watching. Erik (Wilson), abused by his violent stepfather, wreaks vengeance on his classmates with his fists. Suspended from school, he transfers to Stjarnsberg where, it turns out, upper-classmen, especially Otto (Skarsgard), physically and psychologically torment their juniors.

Not wanting to compromise his future, Erik refuses to give in to multiple temptations to fight back, at least until the evil ones begin to attack his weaker roommate, Pierre (Lundstrom), as a way of getting back at him. Erik meets a girl (Zilliacus) who makes life slightly more bearable but who is also the cause of Erik's being expelled from yet another school. After torturing the audience for well over an hour by withholding Erik's righteous wrath, director Hafstrom finally gives us the payoff we've been waiting for. Erik then returns home to deal with his stepfather, threatening him with "elimination."

Evil undeniably manifests, from time to time, a suggestive power and sense of transgression that can be bracing. All too often, however, this edgy power is muffled, especially in the beginning, by long swaths of inert dialogue that set up the rules of the school, for example, that would perhaps have been better dramatised. Similarly, conformism, that old fifties bugaboo, is roundly condemned with lots more overstuffed dialogue.

Class issues briefly pop up but are never really explored, and obscure references to the upper-classmen acting like the "Whites" during the war are of local interest alone and will provoke headscratching elsewhere.

Also the film occupies a weird tonal space between intense realism (the many fight scenes are extra-gruesome) and a stylisation that, for example, has the teachers at the school unconvincingly oblivious to the horribly demeaning miscarriage of justice that occurs daily under their noses. The urge toward symbolism also reigns supreme in the ritualistic fight scenes in which every student screams madly for blood. It's intense, but it also wrecks our suspension of disbelief, as does the out-of-place Wagnerian score that heavily underlines much of the late action.

Still, the director's got a good eye and seems to work well with actors. Once he gets his next script in more rigorous shape before he begins shooting, look for something much better than Evil.

Prod cos: Moviola Film and Television, Nordisk Film
Swe dist:
Columbia TriStar
Int'l sales:
Nordisk Film
Executive prod:
Hans Lonnerheden
Ingemar Leijonborg
Hans Gunnarsson, Mikael Hafstrom, based on the novel by Jan Guillou
Peter Mokrosinski
Darek Hodor
Production des:
Anna Asp
Nalle Hansen, Anders Horling
Francis Shaw
Main cast:
Andreas Wilson, Linda Zilliacus, Henrik Lundstrom, Gustaf Skarsgard, Marie Richardson