An abrasive, intense and imaginative Nordic riff on the prison flick which boasts a stand-out turn from the always-reliable Stellan Skarsgård.
"The world could drown and it would have nothing to do with us."
This is how Governor Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgård) describes the hermetic regime at the Residential School for maladjusted boys on Norway's Bastøy Island. That he is speaking in 1915, during the Great War in which Norway remained officially neutral, brings to his words a dimension of national allegory.
Indeed this film, though fictionalised, is rooted in an actual event: an uprising of the Island's young inmates that would lead to one of only two occasions in Norwegian history when soldiers turned guns on their own fellow-citizens (and on adolescent citizens at that). For beneath the staid, ordered, colour-dulled surfaces of Marius Holst's King of Devil's Island lurk various forms of hypocrisy, corruption and abuse, suggesting something very rotten in the (then) state of Norway.
The Governor is talking to the Island's newest arrival, Erling (Benjamin Helstad), a sailor in his late teens who has narrowly avoided prison for murder. His illiteracy standing in for our own ignorance (if not quite innocence), Erling will become our cicerone to the tough life on Bastøy, as he eventually forms a friendship with long-term 'resident' Olav (Trond Nilssen).
Erling is a natural (albeit self-serving) rebel who, within hours of coming to the island, is already seeking a way to escape, while Olav has gradually worked his way towards rank and release by adhering obediently to the rules. Both boys will become men, and to a degree swap roles, in their response to the Governor's wilfully unjust mishandling of a horrific incident on the Island.
"Bastøy", Erling tells Olav, "is nothing but a small rock in the water. You can become whatever you want." And so the tropes of prison-flick oppression merge seamlessly with teen rites of passage in an unusual period film where hard lessons are learned and characters are formed.
The silence imposed on the boys during work and meal times is matched by Holst's own subdued aesthetic, where all sensationalism is kept outside of the frame and even the film's adult 'villains' are humanised rather than demonised, as fellow prisoners, along with their young wards, of a closed system.
If Erling and Olav's final, icy scene together, following so fast upon Erling's claim to be "the king of Bastøy", brings up unwelcome and unhelpful associations with James Cameron's romantic epic Titanic, this is otherwise a deadly serious drama, presided over by a typically dour but also deeply nuanced performance from Skarsgård as a compromised man incapable of doing what he knows is right.
As two young men under his care retreat together into a fantasy whaling saga as a way to escape their insulated, abusive reality, the film becomes a sort of Nordic Sucker Punch, only avant la lettre, strictly for boys, and without any CG action sequences.
And if this dark chapter of Norwegian history was swept beneath the waters long ago, King of Devil's Island dredges it right back up to shame not only a nation, but all those who still today engage in institutional cover-up.
Norwegian period prison flick? I'm game.
But also a fantasy seafaring adventure, bleak rites of passage, national allegory, and Stellan Skarsgård.
An affecting drama about Norway's coming of age, even if its dourness occasionally veers into blandness.