December 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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Music composed, orchestrated, produced and conducted by Francis Shaw
Performed by the Danish Radio Concert Orchestra
Album produced by Mikael Carlsson
  Available on Movie Score Media (MMS-06008)
Running Time: 46:40
This score can be purchased from iTunes.

Evil (Ondskan) is a little seen Swedish film by Mikael Håfström, that plays like a combination of School Ties mixed with Scent of a Woman… but with more cruelty, scat (both literal and metaphorical), and less poignancy than one would expect.

It’s focused on Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson), a dysfunctional, Swedish school boy—who looks appropriately like a genetically spliced, striking sample of Brendan Fraser and Jude Law—is sent to a boarding school after being expelled from the public education system.  Despite his initial appearance as an atavistic beast—Erik is shown wiping the floor with a practically comatose, bloody classmate, the film soon tries to paint him as a highly sensitive, principled paradigm of ethics and morality.  In an innately evil world, he is the plucky white knight donning oh-so-slightly tarnished armor.  (Gag me with a spoon.)  To say the least, the ruse doesn’t work, but the subsequent inculcation of cruelty soon makes lazy audiences forget, and side with him, regardless of his boring two-dimensionality.

While watching a film titled evil with a capital ‘E’, it’s natural to anticipate a considerable amount of suspense and/or emotion, followed by feelings of liberation.  But I felt cheated after the first rousing three minutes of the film.  There’s only a smattering of vicariously cathartic moments—which is fairly disappointing because they’re short-lived and too predictable.  If it isn’t bad enough that the film is structurally flawed, it’s unfortunate that the music by Francis Shaw makes things even worse.

The forty-six minute score is a queer mix of styles; there are flecks of Edward Elgar, ‘tempestuous’ bits of Beethoven, some diluted ‘orchestral’ Thomas Newman and Maurice Jarre, with brief, channeled phrases of John Williams... but overall (on album), it comes off as a near-pleasing Elmer Bernstein/Bernard Herrmann hybrid.  Seriously traditional without being flamboyant, it lacks a certain degree of emotional intensity or cohesion that makes it average, very good, or outstanding.  Even if they do achieve an appropriate ‘cinematic’ sound, the arrangements just aren’t terribly unique; in the album experience, they leave me leave me feeling semi-bland, faintly titillated—sometimes bored. (It feels as though if Shaw should be composing for something that’s not a film.) But as a collection of cues used to accompany the film, the result is a ghastly, aural mess… if anything, I’d call it ‘Evil’.

Shaw’s music is occasionally used as a baffling or over the top effect (e.g., ‘Erik's Mother Angry’, ‘Swimming Race’, ‘Snow / Marya Turns Away’), but primarily for pitiful narrative purposes.  It’s difficult to tell whether it was the writing team or director that was responsible, but there are many moments of onscreen ambivalence...  (Genuine uncertainty is always an interesting element in dramas.)  Whatever scant depth the film has is ripped away when music suddenly dominates the mood by forcing it in a clear direction, mainly for the sake of ham-fisted storytelling.  One or two tracks aside, you wouldn’t be able to tell on album how undesirable—and shocking—the cues are when paired to their scenes.

Only very rarely does Shaw’s music become functional; when it’s not strangely maudlin, giving off hints of aloof creepiness, or trivializing emotions, it elegantly bestows on scenes a discerning expressiveness that’s—already shown on screen.  It is functionality that hurts more than helps, especially in the case of Wilson, who plays Erik.  He imbues in the character a smoldering, quiet intensity and stability that contrast the in-story/editorial/largely musical chaos around him; so it’s tragic just watching him try to stay afloat and persevere through the film.

Regarding all things Evil, this saying by Christina Rossetti most applies: “Silence is more musical than any song.”

Tina Huang

In Film: 0 (Translation: somewhere in the negatives)
Standalone: 2.5

Michael McLennan adds:-

While I haven’t seen the film in question, as far as the music of Evil goes, I couldn’t disagree more with Tina’s assessment. (Though I realize we’re instantly on a different page, because her thoughts about the music are based on its use in the film.) For my own part, I find this music incredibly interesting – it really makes for a strong album – and while I’m wary now of seeking out the film to hear it in context (especially on learning it was directed by the man responsible for Derailed), I certainly am intrigued by the use of such quintessentially British and melodic music in a Swedish school-based drama.

For the ‘theme-counters’ out there, there are several compelling ideas to choose from in Francis Shaw’s score. ‘Journey to New School’ sets out with the ambiguous main theme played for oboe and French horn over sprightly string rhythms, recalling John Williams’ scoring of the first Harry Potter film at times. The track segues to a touching oboe theme with quintessentially British string accompaniment. This touching oboe theme returns in the violin in ‘Erik and Marya’, going through some beautiful deconstruction in the string-based opening of the track. A waltz that appears towards the end of this track also recurs – e.g. in ‘A Class Nature Walk’. ‘Erik’s Mother Angry’ presents an up-tempo malevolent theme for piano that recurs throughout the score, the short cue ending with a perfect cadence that also rounds out the ‘Closing Titles’ to great effect. These themes recur throughout the score in subtle and overt variations as the tone gets darker, and the film score collector sensitive to good orchestration will appreciate Shaw’s work here.

Despite the strong thematic foundations of the score, there are still many surprises. ‘Piano Consolation’ remains my personal favourite track – a satisfying piano solo rooted half in Chopin, half in popular song. ‘Swimming Race’ is as unusual a piece of ‘chase music’ as I’ve heard for a film – runs of woodwinds, percussion, piano and brass that would probably sound like John Williams in a large orchestra come off as strangely contained (though no less kinetic for it). More skittish are ‘Erik controls his Anger’ and ‘Erik stalks the bully’ – both recall Morricone’s use of avante-garde devices in ‘The Transgression’ (Once Upon a Time in the West). There’s a gathering weight as the whole thing chugs to an ominous conclusion: ‘Erik Digs in the Rain’ is near Mahler in its severity – a heavy string adagio. Chains jangle, a synthetic bass throbs, and the low strings stab out snatches of the theme from ‘Erik’s Mother Angry’. The circle is completed with ‘Erik Sad and Lonely’ – a haunting slow-tempo exploration of the main theme.

The score is recorded beautifully with the Danish Radio Concert Orchestra in the intimate style of Elmer Bernstein drama scores. However effective or defective it is in the film, Francis Shaw’s score is an evocative journey through anger, loneliness, wistfulness and regret. As far as the music goes, this seems an unlikely but worthy winner of the 2006 Ivor Novello award. (Thankfully the Ivor Novello awards don’t seem biased towards the music of films with greater exposure – Shaw’s competitors were Dario Marianelli’s fine Pride and Prejudice and Harry Gregson-Williams’ The Chronicles of Narnia.) It’s Movie Score Media’s strongest album to date, and Mikael Carlsson should be credited for getting it out there. (Though we await the promised full resolution mp3s that are currently not available through the company’s iTunes-based distribution.)

Michael McLennan


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