In 1915 the Norwegian island of Bastøy existed as a boys home and correctional facility for those convicted of minor crimes. The young men were used mainly as cheap manual labor and their sadistic treatment culminated in a violent uprising and an eventual intervention by the Norwegian army. Today, Bastøy is the world’s first eco-prison; a minimum-security open air prison which challenges traditional western thinking behind incarceration.
It is worth noting these facts because the history of Bastøy and the true story on which the film King of Devil’s Island is based, prove more interesting than the film itself. Which is not to say there is nothing worthwhile in director Marius Holst’s (Dragonfly) well-shot and acted drama. It’s just that King of Devil’s Island is, in most senses, a traditional “boys in juvey” story. Like a Norwegian Sleepers, it has all the necessary hallmarks- the harsh, inhumane regime led by a cold headmaster, the friendship between initial adversaries and the token predatory teacher who abuses weak students.
Where the film distinguishes itself is in the excellent performances of its cast. Benjamin Helstad is terrific as Erling, the new inmate with an unknown past. Erling’s refusal to bow to a corrupt, exploitative authority is a catalyst for tipping the others to their breaking point. Stellan Skarsgård (Melancholia, Breaking the Waves) adds complexity to what could have been a typical monster role as the head of Bastøy, Bestyreren. Bestyreren is austere and believes in the harsh medicine of his facility but he is not without his humanity. Skarsgård portrays him as man whose considerable flaws do not fully obscure good intentions. There is also the performance of the prison itself, which presents a chilling setting to the film’s events and is evocatively filmed by director of photography John Andreas Andersen (Fallen Angels).
All of this contributes to a handsome movie that belatedly tries to move beyond its narrative confines. By then, however, things are set and the most unique thing about King of Devil’s Island is how such a particular story and national history could be interpreted into something that feels so familiar.
King of Devil’s Island was released in Australia on May 3rd
Director: Marius Holst
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Benjamin Helstad, Kristoffer Joner