Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Benjamin Helstad, Kristoffer Joner
Running Time: 116 minutes
Language: Norwegian with English subtitles
Extras: Just a brief trailer for the main feature.
Synopsis: It’s 1915 and young offender Erling is sent to a Norwegian reform school on Bastøy island. He soon finds himself locked in a struggle against an oppressive, abusive and cruel regime, with some explosive and tragic results.
Marius Holst’s award winning KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND (2010) holds many similarities with SLEEPERS (1996) – the harrowing account of a group of New York boys sent to a young offender’s institute and sexually abused by corrupt warders. And like SLEEPERS, KING OF DEVILS’ ISLAND is based on a true account, making it all the more shocking (well, SLEEPERS is allegedly true).
Our protagonist Erling has been imprisoned for murder at Bastøy, an island stronghold just forty miles from Oslo. It’s reminiscent of PAPILLON (1973) but instead of tropical seas Bastøy is surrounded by the wild and choppy fjords of Norway. And by gods, it looks cold. A muted palette of greys and blues, wild landscapes and snowy expanses all add to the ever-increasing feeling of numbness that this film evokes.
And it’s a numb, cold life for the inmates of Bastøy. Their crimes range from serious violence to petty theft with apparently nothing to differentiate the severity of the sentence. The Governor (Stellan Skarsgård) is the self-styled “captain” of this prison ship, with the goal of finding a good, honest Christian boy inside each inmate so as to allow them to re-enter society, but in reality he’s a crooked embezzler who turns a blind eye to the abusive, paedophilic tendencies of the schoolmaster, Braaten (Kristoffer Joner). Each boy is robbed of his personal possessions and identity, only being known by his designation. Beatings are a regular occurrence, as well as pointless tasks (Erling is made to haul a pile of rocks just for the hell of it), while one inmate, Ivar, finds himself the victim of sexual abuse. But in this cruel and dehumanizing environment, Erling, now C19, becomes firm friends with fellow inmate Olav. Their bond is helped by Erling’s illiteracy; Olav reads his letters while Erling provides adventurous stories of the sea which transport the pair far beyond their prison walls (and there’s some fantastical CU shots of whales here). With his rebellious attitude Erling rather predictably gains both convict respect and jailer aggression, and things soon go up in flames (literally).
Of course the story of the outsider who comes into an oppressive system and both fights the tyrants and fires up the inmates has been done many times before, most memorably perhaps in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975). But the performances are all top notch in KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND and the narrative, whilst slightly predictable, never descends into triteness, helped by the immensely atmospheric cinematography and minimalist score by Sigur Ros. The film is bookended neatly too by a running metaphor to do with whaling which brings an intrinsic satisfaction to the narrative. And whilst you may guess where this story is going to end up, there are enough surprises to keep you watching. It’s an understated film which works on an emotional level, delivering a solid and well-crafted piece of cinema.