'The Circle' ('Cirkeln'): Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Not exactly bewitching

ABBA's Benny Andersson produced and scored this adaptation of the first novel in the Engelsfors YA franchise about teenage witches in rural Sweden

Six Swedish high-school girls discover they’re actually witches in The Circle (Cirklen), an adaptation of the first book in the Swedish young-adult Engelsfors trilogy by Mats Strandberg and Sara Bergmark Elfgren. Somewhat anonymously directed by Levan Akin, who generously sprinkles CGI over scenes that rarely explain what's exactly happening, this potential franchise starter was produced by ABBA’s Benny Andersson, who also wrote the booming, almost omnipresent score. After a bow in the kids-focused Generation sidebar in Berlin, this will hit Swedish screens Feb. 18, where the success of the books should help draw moviegoers at least over the first weekend. Elsewhere, this Scandinavian take on series such as Charmed and Buffy will be more of a niche item.

At a high school in the fictional dead-end town of Engelsfors, two girls, goth chick Linnea (Leona Axelsen) and the studious Minoo (Irma von Platen), find the lifeless body of one of their peers, Elias (Gustav Lindh), in the bathroom. The conclusion seems to be that he slit his wrists in an apparent suicide, though the film’s opening, in which Elias talked to the brooding and enigmatic school principal (Ruth Vega Fernandez), suggests that something supernatural might be going on instead. At a school vigil for Elias, it seems that at least one of the girls at school, redhead Rebekah (Josefin Asplund, Daniel Craig's daughter in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), is capable of telekinesis, though it takes Akin and Elfgren, who co-wrote the screenplay, a very leisurely 30 minutes before Linnea, Minoo, Rebekah and three other girls from school, Anna-Karin (Helena Engstrom), Vanessa (Miranda Frydman) and Ida (Hanna Asp), finally unite for the first time and come to the realization that they have practically nothing in common except for the fact they are all teenage witches.

Indeed, one of the feature’s main problems seems to be that it wants to include too many subplots from the book, including the home lives of the whopping six protagonists, which are explored in scenes that rely on clichés to telegraph information and thus don't add much individuality to any of the protagonists. Perhaps all these supporting characters and domestic events will have some kind of payoff in future installments, should they get made, but for this film, they simply add up to a feature that runs well over two hours but in which relatively little of consequence seems to happen. A few touching scenes that look at the first visit of Vanessa's boyfriend, Wille (Charlie Petersson) to her family, for example, get the awkwardness and complex family dynamics of the occasion exactly right -- for a brief flash, Levan’s work is reminiscent of the razor-sharp direction of his previous film, Certain People -- but since Wille or Vanessa’s family is otherwise of no importance to the plot, the entire sequence feels like it belongs (and probably should be) in a different movie.

Another problem is that the exact rules of this supernatural world aren’t clearly explained either, with a lot of talk of an (unseen) "Council," a "Book of Elements" that only a few can read and the fact the girls are the "Chosen Ones" -- but chosen for what? What is clear is that "school is an evil place" -- many students aren’t likely to find that a particularly supernatural notion -- and that the six need to unite for their individual powers to have any real impact. And high-school girls being high-school girls, that’s easier said than done, with most of the mid-section of the film taken up by trivial bickering and low-level betrayals as these mean girls from different cliques and backgrounds have no real desire to collaborate with one another or, like Ida, are simply excluded a priori.

Though the actresses, a mix of more experienced actors and fresh faces, are all fine, there isn't an awful lot they can do with characters that aren't properly developed or given all that much to do. Six lead characters might work in a novel but in a film it drags down the proceedings considerably as editor Gustav Watchmeister laboriously cuts between the stories of the different protagonists and there's finally still not a lot of time for each to develop their characters into something beyond a mere outline. The power of individual differences, friendship and loyalty are themes one senses might be important in the books but here they are lost in the film’s labyrinthine plotting, while the finale is particularly heavy on FX work but otherwise thrill-free since it takes a long time to figure out who the girls are fighting -- the fact their nemesis turns out to also be a shape-shifter doesn't help -- and what powers each has at their disposal in that crucial last fight.

That said, if the film's plotting and characters feel like something out of a long-running TV series in which the characters are already familiar to the audience, the technical means at Akin’s disposal come clearly from the world of cinema, with the work of cinematographer Neus Olle, Andersson’s songs and score and the visual effects all imbuing the proceedings with a bombastic edge that at least delivers some audiovisual thrills, even if they more often than not overshadow rather than elucidate the story.

Production company: RMV Film

Cast: Josefin Asplund, Hanna Asp, Miranda Frydman, Irma von Platen, Leona Axelsen, Helena Engstrom, Ruth Vega Fernandez, Sverrir Gudnason

Director: Levan Akin

Screenplay: Levan Akin, Sara Bergmark Elfgren

Producers: Cecilia Normal Mardell, Benny Andersson, Ludvig Andersson

Director of photography: Neus Olle

Production designer: Roger Rosenberg

Costume designer: Cilla Rorby

Editor: Gustav Watchmeister

Music: Benny Andersson

Casting: Victoria Svanell


No rating, 144 minutes