A remote island in the Oslo fjord, the Bastoy Boys Home aims to reform badly behaved boys. When newcomer Erling (Benjamin Helstad) arrives and questions the authority of the abusive 'housefathers’, he finds support from his fellow inmates. Determined to both escape and reveal the institution’s corruption, Erling has to choose between himself and the friends he has won.
CANBERRA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Set in an oppressive reform school on an isolated Norwegian island in 1915, King of Devil's Island offers an hour-and-a-half on unrelentingly grim drama before shifting gears for a spectacular climax in its final 30 minutes.
Technically well made and featuring fine performances, especially from Stellan Skarsgård as the school's governor, this Norwegian academy best film winner suffers from a lack of emotional modulation and a ploddingly linear narrative, drawn from actual events, that makes it seem far longer than its two hour running time.
The exciting final act is worth waiting for, but getting to it often feels like the mental equivalent of the tough physical slog forced on the school's young males.
The tough school or borstal story tradition goes back way beyond film examples like Peter Mullan's Magdalene Sisters (2002) and Allan Clarke's Scum (1979) to 19th century literary classics including Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist. That means the standard tropes (sadistic housekeeper; dungeon-like environment; governor's pet versus rebellious anti-hero) are well known to general audiences.
Jim Loach's recent Oranges and Sunshine recently took an inventive approach to this over-familiarity by never depicting the sadism of the school experience, making it the hidden object of a present-day investigation into past events. But for most of its length the Marius Holst-directed Devil's Island brings nothing novel to the tradition. It offers little in the way of subplots, and no flashbacks or flashes forward that might break the monotony, add mystery and enrich the storytelling. Instead it concentrates on piling on the dourness, sadism and human misery.
The film's anti-hero, Erling (Benjamin Helstad), quickly renamed C-19 (the boys all carry numbers rather than names), is an unattractive character who arrives with the reputation of being a murderer. Fortunately Helstad is a Joaquin Phoenix lookalike with a powerful screen presence who makes his sullenly taciturn character, if not quite sympathetic, at least magnetic.
The film starts with Erling arriving at the prison island of Bastøy. Quickly he realises the fellow inmates are cowed into submission. He doesn't waste time in hatching his escape plans, but with a treacherous stretch of water to cross, and only a single rowing boat to cross it with, it becomes clear he faces an almighty challenge.
Skarsgård earns his star billing, his governor Bestvreren a man who goes through the motions of having a conscience (he declares that he believes in being firm but not 'cruel") without having the courage to commit to the obvious conclusions, nor the self-knowledge to see his glaring hypocrisy.
Visually, the film is composed almost entirely in greys, dark blues and black, which may capture the awfulness of the institution, but is laid on with almost sadistic glee. The snow that arrives in the final stretch feels as liberating as the dramatic events it accompanies – something Holst and his screenwriters obviously intend. The ending certainly punches a hole in the pervading gloominess – as it needed to.