Director: Marius Holst
Writers: Mette M. Bølstad (story), Lars Saabye Christensen (story), Dennis Magnusson (screenplay), and Eric Schmid (screenplay)
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Benjamin Helstad, Trond Nilssen, and Kristoffer Joner
Rated: Unrated (violence)
Distributed by Film Movement | IMDb/trailer
aka Kongen av Bastøy
Something about Scandinavian films always intrigues me. The cold, often bleak atmosphere frequently provides a fitting backdrop to raw and dismal tales. King of Devil’s Island is a perfect example of this, from the cold, rugged setting to the intense and unsettling scenarios. To top it off, the film is based on true events which adds that level of realism that really immerses the viewer into the story.
The film takes place on Bastøy, an island-bound reform school for boys that existed in Norway in the early 1900s. When Erling (Benjamin Helstad) arrives, he’s got only one goal on his mind: to escape. Erling is soon enough introduced to the way of the island which is relentlessly led by its governor (Stellan Skarsgård). The staff rule harshly, enforcing grueling manual labor and crude discipline. Not willing to forfeit his freedoms as a human being, Erling rebels which ultimately leads many other boys to follow suit.
While the governor genuinely seems to believe he’s doing good by the boys through his strict demeanor and beliefs, it’s apparent his power has gone to his head, causing him to lose a bit of humanity. We see a few scenes with the governor and his wife which was one area of the film I would have liked to have seen more of – I felt like there was a lot more depth there that could have been uncovered. Many of the school staff on the other hand don’t seem to care at all for the boys, often treating them as sub-beings. One housemaster (Kristoffer Joner) commits the most foul of abuses which causes tremendous outrage with many of the boys, mainly Olav (Trond Nilssen) – a 6 year resident of the island who befriends Erling.
The abuse and heartlessness of the school staff is hard to swallow, especially when reminding oneself of the true story behind the film. Our character Erling is seen as a rebellious troublemaker to the adults, but to the other boys he’s a hero, representing freedom and courage. He is just what the repressed boys needed to instill a sense of hope. As situations heighten, an uprising soon takes place which results in a face-off between the boys and the Norwegian military.
King of Devil’s Island had me on the edge of my seat nearly the entire length of the movie. The acting, aside from that of veteran Skarsgård which goes without saying, is simply superb and realistic. The young and inexperienced cast and the realism they portray are the driving forces behind the film. Every scene of conflict is gripping and intense, while the more subtle moments, especially those between Erling and Olav, are hopeful and almost poetic.
While not a feel-good movie, the film has a lot of what I enjoy including realistic and believable acting and a gripping story that doesn’t let up. I can’t help but find beauty in the cold and snowy landscape, which makes these types of stories all the more effective. The film is well polished but also feels raw where called for which really helps set the tone for each scene.
The film really leaves one with a lot of thoughts. The story is full of tragedy but still offers amounts of hope for the viewer. I found myself feeling all kinds of emotions throughout. Part of me sympathized with the governor, I understood his intentions but felt his approach was misguided. I also felt for the boys, who must have felt discarded and unwanted by society. What King of Devil’s Island does so well is that it combines great storytelling with effective performances that really evoke the viewer’s emotions by really making us feel for the characters and getting us involved in the story. Combining my love for Scandinavian movies and movies based on true stories, King of Devil’s Island did not disappoint and really stuck with me.