Boys in prisons make for frequently great films. Juvenile offenders appear in classics including the British Scum, American Sleepers and French New Wave masterpiece The 400 Blows. The breaking of the rules, escape attempts, sadistic authority figures and conflict between inmates all makes for gripping cinema with a built-in narrative drive.
King of Devil’s Island is the Scandinavian equivalent of the youth in prison film. Set in the early 20th Century, it takes place almost entirely on the island of Bastoy, located off the coast of Norway. Based on the true story of an insurrection initiated by the boys kept prisoner on the island, it begins with the arrival of Erling (Benjamin Helstad), 17 years old and an ex-navy boy. The truth of the story is that there was indeed a Bastoy Boy’s Home on the island that was in operation between 1900 and 1953, known for its harsh conditions. In 1915 when this story is set, there truly was an uprising as the boys rebelled against their captors and it ended with the use of armed soldiers restoring order on the island.
Into this ripe factual story have been added a collection of fictional characters so brilliantly written and performed that it is hard to imagine that they are far from the truth. Erling arrives on the island with Ivar and they are quickly inducted into the brutal disciplinary regime of the correctional facility that is run like a labour camp. Working in the fields and forests of the island, they are assigned a letter and a number as their new name while they are prisoners. Erling becomes C-19 and soon finds that his housemaster Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner) and the warden Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgård) are hiding dark secrets and are far from the virtuous authority figures that they first appear to be. He befriends another boy, C-1 who is close to leaving the island after his six years spent there, learning and living by the rules and ensuring the other boys stay in line. With C-19 desperate to escape and C-1 finding it increasingly hard to tow the line in the face of cruel and violent oppression, the boys reach breaking point, sparking irreversible consequences.
Benjamin Helstad as C-19 gives a performance that deserves international recognition, completely convincing as the dangerous and illiterate but brave, smart and fearless Erling. His hero turns from selfish and determined to escape, to a more responsible leader and injustice fighter in the second of two realistically realised character arcs. It is Trond Nilssen who delivers the most promising performance in his film debut as C-1, also known as Olav. His arc is the most difficult to portray, turning as he does from reluctant leader of the boys and the most responsible of the inmates to revolutionary fighter, unable to turn a blind eye to the behaviour of housemaster Bråthen any longer. Stellan Skarsgård (The Avengers, Mamma Mia) is fantastically chilly as the warden who at first appears to be the best of a bad bunch but is soon revealed to be as morally corrupt as his peers. Every performance is perfection and director Marius Holst has done a brilliant job of eliciting such strong turns from his predominantly young cast.
All elements of the film are drawn together to complement these superb performances with Holst working wonders with the potentially dull landscape. Director of photography John Andreas Andersen creates gorgeous cinematography, all dull blues and greys that highlight the uniformity of the boys, the freezing cold weather conditions and the hopelessness and despair of the island. The rosiness of the boys’ cheeks is the only bit of colour that manages to escape the otherwise misery inducing colour palette. Similarly Johan Söderqvist provides an incredibly moving but spare score. Like his work on Let the Right One In, the violins dominate but are never intrusive with moments of emotion amplified by the quiet, compelling music.
With performances, cinematography and music this strong, the story could be a garbled bunch of nonsense and there would still be a gripping film here. But the based on fact drama builds to its confrontational climax with touching character beats and enough hope and friendship to make this more than a typical prison drama. Yes there are the old familiar clichés; an escape attempt, a suicide, prison rape, a cruel and sinister authority figure who exploits the boys and a corrupt warden but these are handled sensitively and with complexity. The villains are not pantomime two dimensional bastards and the heroes are not valorized beyond a bit of moral intricacy. The climax is far from the sensationalistic revolution you might expect and despite one slightly too Titanic-y moment between two boys as they try to escape, it is a rewarding and quite moving ending.
King of Devil’s Island makes for stirring viewing. The performances are sovereign and the cinematography and score are supreme. Only the ending fails to fully ignite but when the rest of the story is this engaging, it would be a shame to miss your invitation to the island.
King of Devil’s Island is out on DVD, Blu-ray and available on digital download from 29th October.