The Scandinavian countries have long excelled at portraying the darker side of life, starting at least as far back as the early psychodramas of Ingmar Bergman, and continuing to this day with the likes of Let The Right One In and The Millennium Trilogy. The extraordinary King Of Devil’s Island – which is based on an equally extraordinary true story – is a noble contribution to that illustrious tradition. It’s set in 1915 on a remote island in the fjord of Oslo, at an “institute for maladjusted young boys” called Bastoy. There’s something inherently cinematic about rural Nordic settings, and the starkness of the surroundings here acts as a sort of visual metaphor for the austerity – and intermittent brutality – of life at Bastoy. It’s the kind of reform school where putting people in solitary confinement is seen as the path to reform and Christian redemption. Another supposedly character-building tradition consists of getting the boys to perform such Sisyphean tasks as moving rocks from one spot to another…and then back again. The film’s tagline is “Escape is the only option”, but the geographic location makes it scarcely an option at all.
Into this hellhole comes seventeen-year-old Erling (Benjamin Helstad), henceforth to be known only by the dehumanising “name” of C-19. He’s a taciturn rebel with a resolute sneer and a charismatic presence, and Helstad plays him to perfection. He’s also a natural leader to the other kids – for kids are, of course, all these poor wretches are. But Erling is considerably more than a rebel anti-hero: this is a three-dimensional portrait of a guy with enough native cunning to recognise when acquiescence or (surly) obedience is the cleverest option. There are shades here of Cool Hand Luke, Scum (especially), One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and various other great celluloid tales of incarceration, but the unfolding and unpredictable drama is a classic example of how much stranger truth can be than fiction. Reality is seldom simple, so while the plot trajectory may be largely generic, the details and nuanced treatment are anything but. And there’s one wildly extreme development about which the less said the better.
The laconic and mysterious Erling is a former harpooner from a whaling ship, and though intelligent, he’s also illiterate. He soon becomes a close friend of fellow inmate, Olav, or C-1 (Trond Nilssen), a long-termer who helps him write letters to a beloved female. We don’t know who she is, or the nature of their connection, any more than we know the specifics of Erling’s crime – except that he killed someone. There are repeated, and inevitably repellent, flashbacks to the hunting down of a whale in Erling’s old job. These scenes have an air of inexplicit symbolism, possibly of the Moby Dick variety, but the ambiguity is a strength rather than a weakness, because it gels with the enigma of Erling’s own personality. The mythic element compounds as the two boys create a story about a seafaring adventure.
Another superb performance is given by the estimable Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard as Bestyreren, Bastoy’s governor. Bestyreren is a complex character: essentially well-intentioned, yet also severe, selfish, weak and woefully self-deluded. He diverts money which should be spent on the boys for his own (or more specifically, his wife’s) benefit. Speaking of nautical analogies, he sees Bastoy as a ship on which he is the tough but fair commander, and the inmates are its crew. The chronically flawed Bestyreren, however, is actually a long way from being the most immoral individual on the staff. That dubious distinction goes to a sadistic paedophile called Brathen (Kristoffer Joner). The plot rapidly thickens, in ways which render an already gripping saga all the more compelling.
King Of Devil’s Island is as much about compromise, cowardice and unspoken truths as it is about heroism, and this complexity renders it all the more interesting. Bastoy may be, as Erling puts it, “nothing but a small rock in the water”, but it’s a microcosm of the world at its worst and most unspeakable. There are a number of deeply moving and wrenching scenes, a commendable lack of sentimentality, and a stomach-churning and unforgettable finale on the frozen Skaggerak strait between the island and the Norwegian mainland.
There is, incidentally, a rather ironic real-life coda to this story. Bastoy continues to operate to this day, but has (thankfully) changed beyond all recognition. Rather than becoming a museum, like Alcatraz, it is now trying to be the world’s first “green” prison. It’s an open air, ultra-progressive facility, replete with tennis courts, cable TV and saunas.
Naturalistic drama doesn’t get much better than King Of Devil’s Island. The closest thing to an imperfection is its anomalous title. The real Devil’s Island was, after all, a long way from Norway: it was a notorious penal settlement off French Guiana in South America. But director Marius Holst has fashioned a first-rate drama, and an absolutely unmissable one.