A deeply melancholy tone permeates director Marius Holst's The King of Devil's Island, and given the austere details of the real-life incident it's based on, that's quite fitting. The film is set in Norway's Bastøy correctional facility for boys, and recalls the infamous 1915 uprising that was ultimately quelled by the Norwegian army. Gorgeously shot and expertly acted, it's a sobering meditation on the death of innocence, and the tragedy that results when corruption begets injustice.
A ship approaches the Bastøy Boys' Home carrying Erling (Benjamin Helstad), a teenage sailor rumored to have murdered a man, and Ivar (Magnus Langlete), an adolescent half-wit from a troubled background. Presided over by stern but fair governor Bestyerren (Stellan Skarsgård) and cruel housefather Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner), Bastøy is the last stop for kids who have fallen through the cracks of society. Some are there for only a few years; others, it seems, never leave. Young inmate Olav (Trond Nilssen) is set to be released in just a few weeks when Bestyerren tasks him with showing Erling the ropes. But almost immediately upon arriving at Bastøy, rebellious Erling begins planning his escape. His hopes for a clean getaway are soon dashed, however, when he steals a rowboat but then quickly gets captured. Later, while settling into life at Bastøy, Erling learns that Bråthen has been sexually abusing Ivar, and convinces Olav to speak up. Though Bestyerren initially berates Ivar for his insolence, he soon discovers that the accusation is true and confronts Bråthen, who responds with a threat of blackmail. As injustice and hypocrisy spike tensions among the young inmates, a sudden tragedy leads to a full-scale rebellion that will shock the entire nation, and expose the brutal living conditions in Bastøy.
Although The King of Devil's Island details an historical act of insurrection, writer Dennis Magnusson reveals that he is just as interested in the catalyst that sparked the uprising as the event itself -- the screenplay doesn't shy away from some fairly challenging themes. Early in the film, as Bestyerren scolds Erling for his youthful insolence, the young convict casually rebuts that there is much he does not understand about the way the real world works. He is, after all, just a child, yet his willingness to confess his ignorance on such matters displays a maturity that far exceeds that of most adults whose egos would never allow them to make such an admission. It's a small but defining moment that highlights the manner in which a casual disconnect between wisdom and authority can tarnish even the best of intentions (despite his gruffness, it is readily apparent that Bestyerren wants to see his young charges emerge as better men), and results in a blindness capable of destroying lives. Though impatient viewers may chastise the writer for being too deliberate in his set-up, by taking the time to establish the fragile web of relationships among the inmates and their wardens, he allows us to witness how easily it can be torn apart. Without that competent and compelling context, the drama would carry no significant weight.
And the cast of King of Devil's Island are all well capable of displaying such a complex range emotions: From the moment Erling first arrives at Bastøy, it's obvious he isn't the wild-eyed killer that Bestyerren has been expecting. Determined to regain his freedom, yet far from insolent, Erling seems like an intelligent kid caught up in unfortunate circumstances, and that's as much thanks to Langlete's refined performance as it is to Magnusson's perceptive screenplay. Skarsgård, meanwhile, portrays Bestyerren as a well-meaning man whose damning duplicity and overwhelming urge for self-preservation prevent him from taking the kind of action that perhaps could have prevented the situation from careening into disaster. Joner is downright frightening as the worst kind of predator; Langlete is entirely sympathetic as his ill-fated victim; and Nilssen portrays Olav's conflict with such conviction that we sincerely believe he would risk his freedom to confront such a bitter betrayal.
By sidestepping the inherent clichés of your typical prison film, Magnusson delivers a fascinating study in the breakdown of a brutal, self-contained society. Thanks to Holst's assured direction and John Andreas Andersen's atmospheric cinematography, the challenging themes of his screenplay not only take on true substance, but offer a vivid study of a dark chapter in Norwegian history.