KING OF DEVIL'S ISLAND, THE
In 1915 at Bastoy, an icy, island in the Oslo fjord housing only a reform school for abandoned children, the boys endure the rough treatment of the warden (Stellan Skarsgård) and 'housefather' Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner). When defiant newcomer Erling (Benjamin Helstad) arrives and challenges the hideous system, it sets off a dramatic series of events, sweeping up the fate of fellow youngsters Olav (Trond Nilssen) and the tragic, slightly retarded Ivar (Magnus Langlete). Erling is determined to escape, but Olav has only weeks to go before he is released - if he behaves. (Based on a true story.)
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The dull grey of Norwegian winter is a suitably sombre backdrop for this true story that has sobered Norwegians about some of their past. It's not the only shamed country whose institutional abuse of children has been documented on film (The Magdalene Sisters - Ireland; Oranges and Sunshine - Australia & UK, for starters), and they are always moving, dramatic stories.
This multi award winning film is engrossing despite the familiarity of the subject matter. The details of the incidents - and the extraordinary resolution - related here are quite different to other films in this genre, for a variety of reasons. One, of course, is the setting and period. But more than that, it's the figure of the stern Bestyreren 'Mr Governor' (Stellan Skarsgård), who is sincere in his belief that discipline will bring out the best Christian character of the boys who end up on Bastoy Island. Either that, or they don't leave. The film paints him as tough but basically decent; as the underbelly of the institution is revealed, Bestyreren's willingness to put the island's reputation ahead of his moral duty to the boys casts him in a worse light.
The story revolves around the friendship forged between the tough newcomer, Erling (Benjamin Helstad), a worldly teenager, and possibly the biggest criminal on the island, among boys who are spending years in confinement for petty crimes - like stealing money from the church collection plate, the crime for which Olav's (Tron Nilssen) has been held.
Erling and Olav don't start out as friends, but they are drawn to each other and this relationship carries the emotional backbone of the film to the very end. It's a bumpy journey, because Olav has been something of a model boy and is due for release. He makes Erling promise not to escape until he is gone - which will be soon. But for Erling escape is too urgent and there is hell to pay - by everyone.
And that's not the end of the story; there are layers that are peeled back to reveal the dark secrets that haunt the place and the deep wound that is finally ripped open, only to be matched by another great wound.
Marius Holst has done justice to the material, even if he has had to take some short cuts to do so, in the process thinning out some of the elements. He is well served by a sensitive screenplay and outstanding performances from all the boys as well as the adults. Nilssen is especially memorable in his award winning role as Olav (in his acting debut) and Magnus Langlete is heartbreaking as Ivar.
With its remarkably detailed and effective production design creating just the right atmosphere, the film is also blessed with a minimalist but effective score.
Honest and authentic, the filmmaker takes his subject seriously and gives us a complex and thought provoking film. (Note: the relevance of the title is discovered near the end, but the English title is more descriptive than if it were The King of Bastoy.)
Review by Louise Keller:
Our perception of who might be the King of Devil's Island changes throughout this gripping drama in which courage, loyalty and principles skate over thin ice to defeat the odds. Based on a true story and set in a remote, freezing Norwegian island location in the early 20th century, where maladjusted youths are sent to serve out their sentences, this is a potent story whose elements are as extreme as the climate. Escape might be top of mind for the rebellious new recruit as he is inducted into a society intent on crushing every ounce of self-respect, but it is the relationships that evolve that become the film's beating heart.
It is a bleak winter in 1915 as the boat arrives across the fjord, bringing with it a strong-willed, wayward teen, Erling (Benjamin Helstad), who has allegedly killed a man. But the past is never mentioned on Devil's Island - only the present exists - and Erling's new name is C-19. Killing a man is considerably different from the crime of stealing from the collection plate for which the head boy of Section C, Olav (Trond Nilssen) was committed six years ago and Olav (or C-1) as he is called, is counting the days to be released. No-one has ever escaped, certainly not during the time in which Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner), the cruel housefather, who sees, hears and knows everything that is evil. There are no comforts of home in this barbaric environment, let alone warmth in the freezing conditions; even the Governor Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgård) sits in his austere office wearing a thick winter coat. His signature is the only means of getting off the island.
From loner to leader, C-19 brings rebellion and courage to the island where abuse is a way of life, something that the other boys have long had thrashed out of them as they live in a state of constant terror. Their friendship begins when C-1 reads a letter to the illiterate C-19. But it is the plight of Ivar or C-5 (Magnus Langlete), the physically weakest member of the group, that is the trigger for the explosive sequence of events that follow. Fantasy is the flag of hope that Erling and Ivar use to survive: the story about a whale that takes a whole day to die after being speared by three harpoons is a continuing theme.
There are superb performances from all the main players and the desolate, barren, winter white locations play a major role. Many scenes are difficult to watch as the boys are whipped, caged and degraded in a bid to smother their free-will. There is no denying the sheer power of the film's climax as events suddenly develop an engine of their own and the crown of the king shifts.
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KING OF DEVIL'S ISLAND, THE (M)
CAST: Stellan Skarsgård, Benjamin Helstad, Kristoffer Joner, Trond Nilssen, Morten Lovstad, Daniel Berg, Odin Gineson Broderud, Magnar Botten, Magnus Langlete
PRODUCER: Karin Julsrud
DIRECTOR: Marius Holst
SCRIPT: Dennis Magnusson, Eric Schmid
CINEMATOGRAPHER: John Andreas Anderson
EDITOR: Michal Leszczylowski
MUSIC: Johan Soderqvist
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Janusz Sosnowski
RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Palace
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 3, 2012