• King of Devil's Island

    Released by: Film Movement
    Released on: April 10, 2012.
    Director: Marius Holst
    Cast: Stellan Skarsgard, Kristoffer Joner
    Year: 2011
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    The Movie:

    Combining Mutiny on the Bounty with the allegorical punch of Moby Dick this offering from Film Movement is an exceptionally well done tale of oppression, survival and resistance.

    Set on Norway’s infamous Bastoy Reform School island King of Devil’s Island focuses on a story utilizing some true events. The island’s latest import of note is Erling (Benjamin Helstad), a 17-year-old rumored murderer. As he enters the stern, oppressive school he’s brought before Governor Hakon (Stellan Skarsgard), given the designation as C19, and told he has to learn the rules in order to find the “good Christian boy” inside of him. Hakon tells him that at this place there is no past, no future, only the present. The boys are left then to decide what to make of that present, much to the malcontented chagrin of C19.

    C19 soon runs afoul of Housefather Brathen (Kristoffer Joner) who claims he “sees everything, hears everything, knows everything and writes it all down in the book.” His punishments go beyond strict, into cruelty, and when he selects the other new boy Ivar/C5 as his special laundry room attendant he helps set in motion the dramatic events that will guide the remainder of the film. A boy soon to be released, Olav/C1, is in charge of their block of boys and is given the responsibility of getting C19 to tow the line - something he clearly does not want to do.

    The boys’ interactions, the threats and abuse are all pretty standard for this type of story. Set in the harrowing cold of a North Sea island the starkness of the morality at play is pushed easily to the fore and held up for brutal examination. C19 begins inspiring others, in various ways, to disobedience as well. And once C5 decides he can’t take it anymore and walks into the sea loaded down with stones, the rest of the boys soon follow his rebellious stance.

    The moral crux of the film, of what a proper response to such abusive power structures should be, soon falls instead to Olav/C1. As the designated leader he’s assigned responsibility over their actions and when C5 kills himself the Governor and Housefather are only too happy to lay the blame on his shoulders. C1 finally reaches a breaking point and ultimately sparks the mutiny of the boys over the administration/adults. Director Holst is very reserved and not heavy-handed when it comes to this, letting the boys’ actions unfold organically but with C19’s steadfast determination now. It’s a deft turn of events and storytelling as the boys then must attempt to resist or escape the crushing authoritative response to their rebellion. Their previous survival instincts become much more primal but, in the face of The Authority, cannot hope to stand in defiance long. Only C1 is left to escape, through the courage of his convictions and the strength of his character. And Holst clearly points to this character’s responses as those that are most appropriate in the face of such problems.


    This DVD from Film Movement comes in both Dolby Stereo and 5.1 soundtracks, in Norwegian with English-only subtitles. The 5.1 track is excellently employed and provides the appropriate levels of moodiness to the stark, bleak, brutal imagery on the screen. The film itself is presented in widescreen (16:9) format and uses that to its full advantage, again setting the mood of the island as a seemingly inescapable place of despair and suffering.

    The included short fifteen-minute film comes from England this time and ties into the issues of abusive power, here by nature of peer-pressure and age. Titled as Bale it tells the story of three young boys who make a play area inside a huge stack of hay bales in the countryside. One has nicked his older brother’s smokes which causes a visit from the older brother and his friends. Once the young boys see them coming two of them split but the third hides in a spot inside the hay bales. The older teenagers start to engage in some teen activities when they find the hiding boy. Leaving him in a pit of sorts they flick matches at him for fun. They soon grow tired and leave him stranded, only to later find out that one of the matches has set the entire stack ablaze. The two young boys stare on from afar in helplessness while the older kids return and discover their horror. The idea of bullying in pecking orders being part of nature (this short is set in the countryside) are easily condemned in this manner - even when a reveal at the end shows the young boy having escaped his certain death. Thematically it ties a bit to the main film but its handled far more bluntly and not as deftly here.


    While it’s nothing we really haven’t seen previously but King of Devil’s Island is still great viewing. Power, its abuse and the injustice and frightful emotional reaction it can cause are presently evenly here and are alternately condemned/vilified/condoned. The boys stop short of murdering anyone, instead letting the Governor go off on his own small craft, much like mutineers on a ship. And, like on a ship at sea, all the players here are out on the edges of civilization, left to determine what elements of “proper ordered society” they choose to implement and those they choose to change for the better. It’s good storytelling and very well-acted by all the actors, especially the mains, and well worth the viewing.