King of Devil Island

Director: Marius Holst

Written by: Lars Saabye Christensen, Mette M. Bølstad (story), Dennis Magnusson, Eric Schmid (screenplay)

Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Benjamin Helstad and Kristoffer Joner

Based on true events in Norway in 1915 – an island called ‘Bastoy’ is the location for a Christian home for wayward boys run by Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgård). A new inmate Erling (Benjamin Helstad) arrives and sets himself on a path to escape that leads the boys to a violent uprising against the negligent regime.

I really wasn’t ready for the power of the King of Devil’s Island (KDI). Director Marious Holst’s film opens with the sublimely powerful and equally emotionally draining image of a great whale harpooned and being stalked by the whaling ship. The icy waters lap at its breached and battle scarred hide and soft narration gives you a feeling of being read Melville’s Moby Dick. Holst (director) and writers Schmid and Magnusson aren’t in a rush to delve into and deconstruct Bastoy and the characters that inhabit it. There’s a unique balance where you know what’s coming but you’re initially struggling to understand how it comes about. The story was like reading lyrical prose verse, with patient and purposefully measured tempo.

The performances were affective and morally complex. Erling/C-19 (Benjamin Helstad) is a juvenile criminal, captured for a particularly heinous crime but the Bestyreren (Skarsgård) feel like he should be given a chance to atone in an environment for adolescents instead of prison. Helstad’s C-19 (for the majority of the film you only know the boys by their numbers) is bent on escape. He’s the voice in our heads in the opening of the film: the young man used the freedom of a life at sea feels restricted but the harsh static stone of the island.

Skarsgård delivers a robust and measured performance as the warden Bestyreren. He’s a disciplinarian but he’s profoundly moral, steering these boys back to being good Christian valuable members of society. Unfortunately his staunch morality (outside of the odd bit of skimming funds off the top of the operation) doesn’t necessarily translate to the brutality and heinous underlings doing the day to day work with the young men. It’s a better performance than really anything that I’ve seen him in his Hollywood roles. He infuses the Bestyreren with likeable characteristics that make him a more complex character to deal with. Apathy is a great crime.

The actor that stunned me as his presence and stature grew in the film was Trond Nilssen’s Olav / C-1. He’s a young man imprisoned on the island for six years, that’s become accustomed to the injustice that C-19 (Helstad) cannot abide. C-1’s journey is un-making the young man that the Bastoy and Bestyreren has groomed. This is a young performer that made an impression – keep an eye out for that name – Trond Nilssen.

King of Devil’s Island is poetic story of friendship and adolescence in the bleak, cold and brutal 1915 Bastoy. It’s a snow covered, potent mixture of Sleepers, Shawshank Redemption and Lord of the Flies. 

Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman

King of Devil’s Island was released in Australia on the 3rd of May 2012.