I walked into King of Devil’s Island expecting either supernatural warriors or maybe a giant monkey or dinosaur. But Marius Holst’s new Norwegian drama is something more mundane and altogether different. What’s more, it’s better for it. Based on a real revolt at a youth correctional facility on the island of Bastøy, the film takes its time to craft an epic story out of an infamous event, letting its humanity rise to the fore. With Stellan Skarsgard in tow as the overbearing governor of the school, I think Island stands a great chance of being nominated in the Foreign Film category for the upcoming Academy Awards.
Holst and his screenwriters, Dennis Magnusson and Eric Schmid, take what could have been a pretty routine story of underdogs fighting a corrupt system and give it a definition and identity that surprises. They create characters who start as vague abstractions or types and then build into them behaviors that feel organic and inevitable at the same time. Take the central character of Erling (Benjamin Helstad), for instance, a young, gruff sailor, whose entry into the camp starts the story. The headstrong and sometimes obstinately rough Erling is the upstart who eventually mobilizes the other boys in taking over the facility. However, where we expect to find a figurehead or no-nonsense action hero, there isn’t. Erling may not quite possess the moral understanding to represent heroic virtue, but even he comes to realize that his revolutionary heart isn’t necessarily sparked for justice. He fights against this abusive system, but we wonder if he wouldn’t –or hasn’t been—fighting against every system he’s ever come up against.
Like the rest of the boys, we never learn what crimes actually brought Erling to the island. Furthermore, the tragic abuse of power that causes Erling to rise up—some kind of violation against a weaker boy, Ivar (Magnus Langlete) by house father Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner)—is never depicted on screen. Yes, it’s likely that the predatory Bråthen, who slinks around under the eyes of the principled–but ultimately cowardly–governor (Skarsgard), is sexually molesting the wispy Ivar , but the film chooses to never speak it aloud. This sense of omission helps distinguish Island by pairing down its action and event to choices and consequences.
When a new inmate arrives at the island, the first thing they are given is a number in place of a name, and their previous crimes are never spoken of. Erling becomes C-19, Ivar is C-5, and the governor’s heady boy, Olav (biding his time as lap-dog in hopes of release) is C-1. Even Skarsgard’s well-meaning and pragmatic governor has no distinguishable name. There’s a curious abstraction that happens on both sides. The authority are nameless overlords to the inmates, and the youth leeched of humanity or distinction, their crimes unspoken but their status as criminal intact. It’s curious, and I’m sure purposeful, that the only truly evil character in the film, Bråthen, is also the only one to keep all of his definable attributes. His darkness, however, remains unviewed by the audience. All of this leads up to a terrifically constructed third act that is powerful at the same time its bleak and grim.
There’s passion and skill put to the task of evoking the desperation and insensitivity that drives Erling and the rest to stage a takeover. Although there are few unnecessary side stories to distract from the tension filled sequences involving the revolution, Holst delivers the event itself in a straight forward and relentless fashion while keeping the pace down to a slow, methodical march of tragic proportions. The acting is mostly excellent, and a good deal of it is delivered by newcomers. Of the adults, Skarsgard and Joner shine, one as a decent man hemmed in by fear and misguided notions of care, and the other as a snake hiding in the midst of the grim, demanding atmosphere of the camp. Joner in particular adds impact to the picture by playing a man of mundane evil, letting his inner wolf emerge when the slightest of sheep enters his proximity. When he finally rears his feral head to Skarsgard, we see the two of them in a deadly dance that only solidifies our suspicions about how this creep has managed to stay hidden this long.
The youngsters, as led by Benjamin Helstad, give solid turns, really making the events of the finale sting with poignancy. Helstad himself is a bit too stoic and tonally flat as Erling, but his poise and presence serve the character well. I found myself warming to him halfway through, and by the end, actively rooting for him. However, there’s a strong feeling that’s down to the fine writing and less the skill of Helstad himself. Faring better in the arena of emotional versatility are Langlete and Nilssen as Ivar and Olav. Langlete summons a feeling of fear and uncertainty, it’s clear early on he’s the weakest of the lot, and through various traits and tics he signals this vulnerability. It makes him both sadder and more interesting, because he’s fully aware of this deficit and still helpless to do much about it. His fate at the hands of Jonner is truly wrenching and becomes a lynchpin of the film. If not for Langlete’s ability to cull not just sympathy but understanding for Ivar, then there would be less urgent need in the big action sequences. The same is true of Nilssen, who plays a young man who has spent time honing good behavior and turning a blind eye because it serves his personal mission—getting the hell out. Watching him start to consider his fellow inmates is potentially the most interesting aspect of the film, mostly because it’s handled in an understated and realistic way.
This realism is the strength of the entire picture. John Andreas Andersen’s cinematography is both moody and crisp, capturing the film and it’s big budget set pieces in a manner worthy of prison escape movies. His best work is reserved for the early going though, where he has to embrace the harsh desolation of the Estonian landscape (standing in here for Norway) and then echo that same inhumanity in the washed-out but starkly beautiful interiors of the reform camp. When the bright blaze of orange flames engulf those bleak blues and grays, it effectively ties together the haunting opening shots of the film, that focus on an injured whale advancing on a harpooner, struggling in its dying moments to carry on, just a bit further. The score starts quiet and solemn and moves toward angry triumph, not signaling scenes or bringing up the rear, but walking almost effortlessly in step with them to create sequences that feel truly organic.
There is no mistaking the fact that King of Devil’s Island is a strong and effective piece of work. It earns all of its emotions and then doesn’t take them for granted. It almost completely avoids heavy-handedness or trite commentary. There’s something nearly timeless in the way it tells a story that is mostly newspaper headline footnote. In a time of timid and tepid drama, here is a film that isn’t afraid to be ambitious with a concept that didn’t necessarily require it. Sometimes, it’s good to be king.