King Of Devil's Island

King Of Devil's Island


Reviewed by: David Graham

Marius Holst (Blodsband, Dragonflies) offers another of his youth-centred dramas with the brutal true story of an uprising at a notorious Norwegian borstal. Despite some predictable plot points - sexual abuse, suicide, futile escape attempts - his film distinguishes itself from the likes of Scum and the recent Dog Pound through an impressively mounted period atmosphere and some excellent work from his young non-professional stars.

Bastoy is an early 20th century Alcatraz for young offenders, populated by boys ranging from pre-pubescence right up to late teens. A sentence there is likely to be lengthy, with many of the young offenders spending the entirety of their teenage years on the island, submitted to punishing labour in freezing conditions with a harsh militaristic regime in place of any semblance of education. Their Governor is strict but tries to look out for the boys, believing in Bastoy's reformational power, but some of his staff are prone to abusing their authority.

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Into this environment comes volatile teen Erling, who refuses to buckle to the intimidation tactics of his superiors and the other boys. Despite plotting a daring escape, the newly monikered 'C19' finds himself becoming embroiled in the politics of his prison, finding it hard to ignore the suffering of his peers. As matters grow more serious, a rebellion seems to be the only option for the boys to break the cycle, but in doing so they risk their very lives.

Holst's film is much more artful than many of its predecessors, quickly establishing the grim atmosphere through chilly locations and the bleak, barren landscape but utilising a stirring score and striking cinematography rather than the sort of stark in-your-face realism of Alan Clarke's 'daddy' of the genre. The story takes its time so that we get to know the boys, building to become truly epic and rousing, with riot scenes effectively conveying a sense of how dangerous their revolt was for themselves and those they were retaliating against.

Little details make the film more poignant and harrowing as barely-concealed revelations come to the fore; in particular, the way Holst sensitively handles one weak child's abuse and fate is absolutely heart-rending. Elsewhere, C19's treasuring of a letter offers up the extended metaphor of a huge whale that battled on despite being repeatedly harpooned - an appropriate allusion for the boys' experience.

In the lead, Benjamin Helstad makes quite an impression, convincingly progressing from keeping a survival-motivated distance from his peers to eventually becoming inextricably linked with their struggle to overturn the adults' tyranny. His reaction to a pivotal tragedy is especially well wrought, making us fully invested in his subsequent fight to defeat their oppressors. His character is made the more interesting for his desperate determination to get off the island, having seemingly led a more or less adult life previously, which he gradually comes to share with some of the boys. The relationships he hesitantly forges are also established believably, with initial resentment and rivalry giving way to respect and solidarity.

Trond Nilssen is also excellent as the head boy of the facility, trying to hold on to his hard-won privileges and imminent emancipation even if it means turning a blind eye to the suffering of those around him. Much of the film's pleasure derives from observing how the boys grow to trust and look out for one another, while the tension comes from waiting for their burgeoning collective strength to turn into revolt.

Stellan Skarsgard, as the governor, is as watchable as ever, conveying concern and guilt despite his authoritative stance, while Kristoffer Joner is outstanding in a crucial role as the boys' biggest enemy; his sallow features and sunken eyes are perfect for the portrayal of the predatory Brathen, a sullen bully who has been rejected by adult society.

Holst's film takes on a truly tragic tone that some will find too much to handle, but it's a massively engaging effort that should reward those that stick out its hefty running time. The chaotic climax really hammers home the savagery of both the children and the adults who they're supposed to look up to, while events become almost apocalyptically chaotic in the final stretch. There is a real emotional pay-off to the film's closing moments, done full justice by some talented youngsters who manage to do much more than merely glower. King Of Devil's Island works well as both historical drama and a William Golding-esque fable, and should strike a chord with audiences of all ages.

Reviewed on: 01 Jul 2011
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A group of young inmates fight for their right to freedom.
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Director: Marius Holst

Starring: Benjamin Helstad, Stellan Skarsgard, Kristoffer Joner, Trond Nilssen

Year: 2010

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: Norway


EIFF 2011

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