All actions have consequences and equally so does a lack of action. From a partially true account of life at an all boys reform school in the early 20th century, King of Devil’s Island tells a much tested and timeless tale of individualism in the face of conformity, of innocence corrupted. Its drama is one that many will have come across before yet with pitch perfect performances all round, excellent use of locales, and haunting score, this glimpse into a sordid piece of Norwegian history is compelling from start to finish.
The story begins when a new inmate, Erling, as he arrives on the island of Bastøy where the reformatory sits in its brooding gothic manner. He and another boy are quickly briefed on the strict and expectant way of life they will lead in their stay before being stripped of personal belongings, clothes, and even their names. Each boy on the island are numbered, Erling becoming C-19, this dehumanization process being part of a bigger plan to break down the individual before building up an idealized version of a socialised citizen worthy of freedom.
Despite the brutal vigour of the daily chores as well as the stern contradictory authority figures, Erling eventually finds a friend in Olav/C-1, a young man close to ending his long stay on Bastøy.
The two bond as Olav helps read and write Erling’s letter’s to and from his sister but as the tension builds and the film hurtles towards the historically famous uprising, the chance for both to make it back to society is put under great strain. Whereas Erling is psychically tough and strong willed the other boy he landed on the island with, Ivar, is weak bodied and demure. What transpires among the many layers of corruption is a representation of Darwinism as Erling overcomes or avoids the abuse laid before the flimsier inmate. The increasingly inhumane treatment of Ivar is the main catalyst for all the carnage that follows in the film’s rewarding finale.
Stellan Skarsgård stars as the Headmaster, Håkon; his stone face immovable to the damaging world he helps sustain. Skarsgård makes the most of a rather thin character, a testament to such a fine actor as he gives layers, glimpses, and shades to what would to a lesser performer be a clear cut case of archetypal evil. You see moments of slight compassion behind his eyes, the motion of his mouth when he speaks, making for an enthralling depiction of a man covering up sheer amounts of guilt. Repression is a key theme of King of Devil’s Island. Helping Håkon appear a less irrefutable form of evil is perhaps made easier by House Father Braaten, played by the always impressive Kristoffer Joner. His depravity and lack of remorse towards the children is played remarkably so, one of the film’s strong points being that it never settles for caricature, there is a real psychology behind the eyes here.
The film’s island location forces an overwhelming sense of not just isolation but claustrophobia with Johan Söderqvist’s music adding clear foreboding but also melancholic tones. The photography is almost devoid of colour, in retrospect it’s hard to remember any elements of colour besides the raging fires during the riots, and you’d be forgiven to understand you’d just witnessed a black & white film. This drained photography latches onto the mindset of the characters from the offset; whether they be the teachers, wardens, or the inmates, there is no life on the seemingly Godless island.
It’s really the performances that make The King of Devil’s Island a riveting piece of drama, as the set up and thinly drawn characters would surely have fallen flat if it weren’t for such a wondrous cast. Next to the seasoned and much lauded talents of Joner and Skarsgård the younger performers are wholly impressive, never appearing out of depth while sharing scenes. The film succeeds beyond the level of its material due to its obvious dedication to the story, characters, and audience, finding nuances and building atmosphere where others might not have tried. An overall rewarding and respectful piece of filmmaking well worth your time.
King Of Devil’s Island is out on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download from October 29th
Words by Joseph MocDonagh