Thursday, May 3, 2012

New Release Review: King of Devil's Island (Marius Holst, 2011)

Based on remarkable true events in Norway in 1915, King of Devil’s Island, directed by Marius Holst, tells an unsettling tale of unchecked brutality, enduring friendships and desperate rebellion, set on a remote island reform school for abandoned and maladjusted children. At Bastoy (located on the fjord of Oslo), life is tough; the manual labour is arduous, and the regimen is strict and unforgiving. Hard work and rough handed punishment, are what the guards, and their governor (a convincing Stelan Skarsgard – he plays this sort of role very well) believe will convert these youths into adjusted Christian citizens capable of returning to mainland society.

The film opens with the arrival to Bastoy of seventeen-year-old Erling (Benjamin Helstad), rumoured to be a killer, having been on-board a harpoon vessel – a story about a harpooned whale, which works effectively as a recurring visual metaphor – frames the story. Erling, immediately stripped of his humanity, is given the name C19, and assigned to C-Block by Skarsgard’s no-nonsense governor. C-Block is under the responsibility of C1/Olav (Trond Nilssen), a headstrong elder boy who is nearing signed release, following a six-year stay and an unnatural conformity to the governor’s rules, and overseen by a Housemaster, Brathen (Kristoffer Joner).

Refusing to accept the constant abuse, and immediately seeking out ways to overthrow the guard’s power, and escape, Erling begins to attract colleagues – colleagues, who fear the consequences of trying to escape, feel betrayed, or are simply envious, that aid and sabotage his ploys in equal measure. What transpires is a now-famous event in Norwegian history, and for the most part, a pretty solid prison drama.

The set-up and the character introductions was interesting, while watching what these boys were required to do on a daily basis, and the extent of the selected punishments, was initially captivating. After a while, this becomes a little stodgy and tiresome, and despite key events being introduced – a subplot involving a meek and weak ward, C5 (Magnus Langlete), who suffers debilitating sexual abuse, and the constant struggle between Olav, who is scheduled to be up for review and doesn’t want any rules broken while his watch stands, and Erling, who is relentlessly pursuing a means off the island – the middle moves slow, feels misguided, and begins to drag. 

The self-righteous Governor also has his own arc, faced with putting on a smile for his bosses, who make a visit at one point, and forced to make a decision – and it is this decision that pushes Olav and Erling over the edge and spurs the rebellion – when knowledge of the sexual abuse is brought to his attention. These pair, and the bond they earn, is the reason why the conclusion has an emotional impact.

I felt what I knew about the story prior to entering the cinema was a disservice because it removed the tension and surprise from some of the events that made up the middle portion. The finale is terrific, however, and this is when the film, after such a promising start, finally hit its stride. Nordic filmmakers are notorious for effectively capturing their wintry climate, and The King of Devil’s Island is no exception. Having built a bleak, miserable atmosphere – with an unwavering high abundance of blues/greys – Holst ensures his film is consistently tense and fraught with menace. The climate is so chilly you can almost feel the frostbite developing on the young men yourself, while the island seems to be forever enshrouded in a dark shadow.

The King of Devil’s Island is a cold and remote tale of harsh discipline and monotonous brutality. It offers up little semblance of hope for any of the wards for most of the duration, which becomes trying, fails to be consistently gripping (the shifting protagonists, and several punctuated events that offer up little emotional impact) and doesn't offer anything particularly new. But, it is well acted by Skarsgard, Helstad and Nilssen, and Erling and Olav are well-built characters. It is a shame that few other characters transcend stereotype. A terrific finale, and scarily effective use of the wintry location lift this above the average correctional reform drama, and this ultimately makes it worth a look, but not essential.

My Rating: ★★★ (B-) 

1 comment:

  1. Not essential? This film is a Masterpiece raising to metaphorical and visual levels of fine art. I don't see where you understood a single shred of it.