Stop if you've heard this before: an overbearing headmaster gets his comeuppance from his students after he pushes them too far, causing a violent uprising and revolt to take place. In literature and in films, variations on this theme have cropped up time and again usually with the same types of characters and signifiers, with the story and pacing playing out to the beat of a very familiar drum. And while on paper, Marius Holst's "The King Of Devil's Island" may seem like a trip down an already well-worn path, the film is a refreshing surprise that offers up a character-driven take on the genre that throws familiar notions of how this kind of story should play right out the window.
Based on the true events that occurred at a notorious Norwegian boy’s school in 1915, the film opens by letting us know we are already far way from civilized life. The bullish, stocky Erling (Benjamin Helstad) and the skinny, frail Ivar (Magnus Langlete) are on a boat headed to the Alcatraz-like island that holds Bastoy, a reform school/prison for troubled boys, where they will be newest residents. In a brisk opening sequence, the housefather Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner) lays out the ground rules, cuts their hair to the scalp, strips them down, scrubs them off and gives them their standard issue uniforms, but most dehumanizing of all, from here on in they will be addressed by their numbers: C-19 and C-5 respectively. From there they meet the governor of Bastoy, played with a classy coldness by Stellan Skarsgård, who doesn't have to do much to convince them and the audience that his word is law -- and that the consequences for breaking the rules are dire.
As Erling and Ivar are tossed in with the rest of the boys of C block, they try to find their place in the pecking order. The rebellious Erling establishes himself as someone who won't easily bow to the governor nor to the intimidation of the other toughs he has to bunk with, meanwhile Ivar largely keeps quiet and to himself. Fronting this unruly pack is Olav aka C-1 (Trond Nilssen). The equivalent of a lifer at Bastoy, his loyal service to the governor and his dutiful fulfillment of whatever he is commanded to do has put him on track to get released in a few weeks and he's eager not to screw things up. But Erling throws a wrench into those plans as not only does he plot to escape, but his consistently unruly behavior finds the governor coming down hard on both of them. Despite this, the two eventually develop a grudging respect that turns into a formidable friendship, with their qualities balancing out the deficiencies in one another.
Once the story by Mette M. Bølstad and Lars Saabye Christensen and screenplay by Dennis Magnusson and Eric Schmid sets up the parameters and world in which these characters operate, the plot turns down to a simmer. Rebellion doesn't come in a single moment nor in a series of events that follow in succession. In "The King Of Devil's Island," revolt is just as much in a steely glance or in the aftermath of a small injustice. It's the bit and pieces of moments and memories stored over time that eventually topple over that lie at the root of the what the boys finally do once they are pushed over the line. But where the film truly elevates itself above similar films is in its thematic complexity. "The King Of Devil's Island" finds both Erling and Olav struggling with a moral ground that is constantly shifting. For the former, he is asked to put aside his selfish ambitions of plotting an escape to prevent the others from the facing the punishment they are likely to receive due to his actions, while latter's blind loyalty to the governor begins to curdle in his conscience, particularly when he learns of Bråthen's uncomfortably strong interest in Ivar. It's a question of self-preservation versus acting for the greater good and the film makes strong arguments for and against both.
This tone sustains for most of the picture -- contemplative but chilly, caustic yet considered -- and it's truly something unique. Holst does a wonderful job of establishing a barren world where these young boys, who seemingly have no hope, cobble together a crude brotherhood built on unspoken values in order to survive. Where the film stumbles slightly is in the final act that, without spoiling what happens, turns more into an action-oriented survival pic which consequently puts most of the more intriguing elements of the film on the backburner. What was a character piece about the psychological and emotional toll taken on the boys at Bastoy becomes something decidedly more "Lord Of The Flies." However, it's not a dealbreaker by any stretch and the film wraps up on a strong character note, one that wrenchingly brings the bond between Erling and Olav full circle.
With a suitably subdued score by Johan Söderqvist that is punctuated by a recurring musical cue from "Vaka" (aka "Untitled #1) by Sigur Ros (that is actually quite perfectly used and not as overwrought as you might think), Holst has created an immaculate, though certainly dour, film. Earlier in the year the film was tipped as a potential Best Foreign Film candidate at the next Oscars but we don't think that will happen. If there are any quibbles with Holst's film is that it's mostly one-note, and a sombre one at that. While it's strongly acted and composed, the film's third act turn prevents it truly flourishing and capitalizing on the groundwork that was laid out (and we'll politely overlook that subplot involving the Governor's young wife Astrid played by Ellen Dorrit Petersen that was wholly underdeveloped and/or abrutly edited out of the movie).
But for all the little things that don't quite work completely (again, they are minor issues), there is so much more in "The King Of Devil's Island" that works wonderfully. And while the very Nordic drama may keep you a distance with its clinical construction and dreary subject matter, it ends on a well-deserved note of bittersweet heart and melancholy that makes the trip to the island worth it. [B+]