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King of Devil's Island - DVD Review

King of Devil's Island

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

MARIUS Holst’s King of Devil’s Island is a familiar film in many ways but is notable for the power of its performances and its basis in truth.

Based on a little known but dark chapter in Norwegian history, the film tells the true story of a 1915 uprising by teenage offenders at Bastøy Island, a correctional facility for ‘maladjusted children’ that, rather like a teenage Alcatraz, functioned from 1900 to 1953.

Upon its foundation, Bastøy was intended to raise delinquent children in accordance with suitable standards of conduct rather than meting out punishment. But coupled with its harsh frozen environment, the facility also became renowned for its strict and sometimes abusive methods.

Holst’s film was inspired by a meeting the director once had with a former boy on the island and chronicles the events leading up to the 1915 rebellion.

It is as much a tale of triumph over adversity as it is a thoughtful examination of how evil can be allowed to grow in institutions, especially when operating out of world view.

Events begin with the arrival of two new teenagers to the island in the form of 17-year-old Erling (Benjamin Helstad), a strong-willed lad determined to escape, and Ivar (Magnus Langlete), the weaker of the two.

The school’s no-nonsense governor, Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgard), instantly sees Erling as a trouble-maker and keeps a close eye on him, assigning model dormitory leader Olav (Trond Nilssen) to help with his rehab, but Ivar is singled out by Bastøy’s aggressive enforcer Brathen (Kristoffer Joner) for sexual abuse, the outcome of which eventually provides the catalyst for the uprising.

Holst’s film undoubtedly has a lot in common with countless other prison movies but stands among the best of them by virtue of its sombre direction and subtle story-telling.

This slowly builds the tensions, taking time to explore the characters and their various motivations, without indulging in crowd-pleasing tendecies or show-boating sequences. Indeed, the worst of the abuse isn’t shown but its effects are examined in an intelligent, sensitive manner that feels all the more authentic.

The performances, too, shine. Skarsgard excels as the God-fearing disciplinarian who is naturally inclined to act in the best interests of the boys but whose own wayward priorities prevent this just when it matters most. He remains a monster but a far more complex and real one for being multi-dimensional.

And there’s equally strong support from the boys, many of whom are untrained actors. Nilssen, for instance, nicely conveys a mounting rage as the seemingly obedient Olav, while Helstad invests his Erling with a fierce resolve and an undying spirit.

The uprising, when it comes, is brutally conveyed but once more resists appearing triumphant or celebratory. Rather, there is consequence even to seeing the boys eventually strike back against their main oppressors.

It lends the final scenes an even greater poignancy, while maintaining the film’s ability to remain thought-provoking and haunting – something that Holst was undoubtedly seeking from audiences given how long the story has remained with him.

In Norwegian, with subtitles

Certificate: 15
Running time: 120mins
UK Blu-ray and DVD Release: October 29, 2012