Nordic gloom at boys' colony
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Dec. 16, 2011
Norway's Bastoy Prison has made the news in recent years for its progressive rules and liberal treatment of prisoners, who have free run of the minimum-security island facility, located in the middle of a fjord one hour south of Oslo. But Bastoy's inmates didn't always have it so good, as the bleak film "King of Devil's Island" makes harrowingly, grippingly clear.
Set in 1915, the fact-based Norwegian drama concerns the island's previous claim to fame: the Bastoy Boys Home. Part boarding school, part correctional institution, the home for maladjusted adolescents and pre-adolescents was known, for much of its existence - 1900 to 1953 - for its harsh conditions. How harsh? In 1915, there was an uprising by some of the boys against the home's administrators. It was suppressed by the Norwegian military.
"King of Devil's Island" concerns the events leading up to that riot.
The story, well told by director Marius Holst and writer Dennis Magnusson, builds toward an explosive confrontation between two 17-year-olds and two of their adult overseers. Lined up on the boys' side are newcomer Erling (Benjamin Helstad), a rebellious hothead rumored to have killed someone, and Olav (Trond Nilssen), a Bastoy veteran who is weeks away from release after six years of good behavior.
Facing off against them is the island's governor, Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgard), a stern administrator whose mask of tough love hides a willingness to turn a blind eye to his underlings' misbehavior. At the governor's right hand is his more openly - and creepily - abusive deputy, Brathen (Kristoffer Joner).
The catalyst in this volatile mix is a third boy, Ivar (Magnus Langlete), a naive, easily manipulated teen whose fate, resulting from Brathen's molestation of him, pushes Erling, Olav and their peers over an edge they're already too close to. It's a precipitous fall, with an outcome that doesn't look good from any angle - or for anyone concerned.
Unfortunate associations between the events of "Devil's Island" and news reports about the Penn State scandal - also involving a violation of trust between boys and a supposed caregiver, and accusations of willful neglect - only lend the film a deeper, contemporary resonance.
As the stone-faced and venal governor, Skarsgard is excellent. So is Helstad as Erling, the film's strong, if tragic hero. (The film's title refers to him, not the governor.) Nilssen and Joner are also very good.
Recent Scandinavian films, culminating in the "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" series, have been steadily carving out a gloomy cinematic niche, opening up worlds of festering ugliness and rancid history beneath the polite facade of modern society.
Add "King of Devil's Island" to that list.
Contains violence, disturbing subject matter and a bit of crude language. In Norwegian with English subtitles.