“Evil” is not, as the title would suggest, a horror film, at least not a conventional one. Based on the autobiographical novel by Jan Guillou and set in the mid-1950s, the film relates the experiences of a troubled young man who’s enrolled into a hidebound private school. As an antidote to the hand-held, choppily edited Dogma style of cinema, the classical approach taken by director Mikael Hafstrom will be seen as old-fashioned by some and refreshing by others. Booked for a September release in Sweden, the pic should get a healthy boost by the commanding performance of Andreas Wilson as the beleaguered protagonist.
At a time when teenagers were enthralled by James Dean and were playing Buddy Holly records (and, in Sweden, Ingmar Bergman was putting his very personal brand of cinema on the international map), Erik Ponti (Wilson) is expelled from public school.
After years of being beaten by his odious father (Johan Rabeus) while his mother (Marie Richardson) does nothing to prevent it, Erik has become violent himself. He beats a fellow pupil so severely that his headmaster tells him he’s the most vicious pupil he’s ever seen: “You are evil in its purest form,” the 16-year-old is told.
His mother is able to raise enough money to send Erik to the prestigious Stjarnsberg private school, an establishment apparently modeled on English prototypes like Eton. Here, in scenes reminiscent of Lindsay Anderson’s “If. . .” (1969), the senior boys lord it over the juniors. School staff, however, ignores the injustices meted out by the senior boys.
Erik, a natural rebel, refuses to accept that a senior boy has the power (under the unofficial school rules) to hit him or, in the most extreme form of punishment, sentence him to “The Ring,” where a junior is expected to fight two burly seniorsuntil he begs for mercy. But, Erik does not want to be expelled, because he knows what sacrifices his mother has made for him.
Erik falls foul of Otto Silverhielm (Gustaf Skarsgard), leader of the senior bully set. He befriends Pierre Tanuy (Henrik Lundstrom), a weedy intellectual. He also finds some relief in a relationship with Finnish kitchen maid Marja (Linda Zilliacus), though it’s a dangerous liaison and punishable by expulsion if the lovers are discovered.
For most of the overlong film, the audience will be waiting for the inevitable moment when Erik stands up to his tormentors. Hafstrom convincingly depicts a closeted world in which tradition has displaced human decency: His formal approach to the material seems suited to the subject matter.
Wilson is a powerful presence as the slow-burning but, when roused, very violent Erik, while Lundstrom movingly portrays the vulnerable Pierre. Skarsgard tends to overplay the lip-smacking villainy of the monstrous Silverhielm.
Technical credits are excellent in every department.