KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND
Running Length: 116 minutes
Cast: Benjamin Helstad, Stellan Skarsgard, Trond Nilssen, Kristoffer Joner
Director: Harius Holst
Screenplay: Dennis Magnusson
Cinematography: John Andreas Andersen
Based on the true story of a rebellion in a boys’ borstal on a Norwegian island, this is a striking and unusual film.
Director Holst uses the island location to great advantage, showing the young prisoners as being both trapped and free to roam. The ocean surrounding the island cuts them off from the rest of the world and is as effective as bars for keeping the detainees detained.
The crimes that have landed the boys here are not huge. One boy has been incarcerated for six years for stealing from the church collection plate. You get the sense that in many cases the boys have been sent away because they were difficult rather than criminal.
But when Erling arrives on the island, the dynamic of the prison changes. Erling is a real criminal and coming to Bostoy is the only thing keeping him from prison. A former sailor on a whaling ship, Erling has a powerful physiology and refuses act or feel like a prisoner.
Time and time again he pushes against those who detain him, and refuses to be broken by even the most brutal punishments. His polar opposite is Olav, the boy accused of stealing from the collection plate. Olav is about to be released and has the role of leader in the overcrowded boys’ dorm. Olav is tasked with getting Erling settled into the routine of the prison and soon finds himself enmeshed in a strange kind of friendship.
Small indignities add up, and when one of the housefathers is revealed to be fiddling with a young boy, Olav’s repressed anger surges to the surface and rebellion is unleashed, the power shifting from the guards to the prisoners.
The cinematography is gorgeous, capturing the starkness of the buildings and the surrounding landscape. Shots of the sea crashing in on snow-coated beaches are particularly gorgeous. While the adult characters are not given much in the way of character development outside being brutal authority figures, the boys are all too human. They fit the roles perfectly and it is their performances that make this a compelling, exciting and tragic viewing experience. If the final scene doesn’t break your heart, then your heart is as cold as the ice Olav and Erling struggle to cross.