Today, Bastoy Island – nicknamed ‘Devil’s Island – serves as the host to Bastoy Prison, a minimum security lock-up. In the past, however, the place served as the home for Bastoy Reform School. At that time, boys in trouble with the law were surrendered to the state for rehabilitation, a program of education and manual labor meant to turn these ne’er-do-wells into functioning members of society. Like a prison, they were ‘reviewed’ by a parole board; if found fit, they would be returned to their families, but, if found wanting, they’d endure harsher and harsher punishment in hopes that treatment would be inevitably achieved.
Into this environment comes Erling (played by Benjamin Helstad). The boy comes with a reputation: he is the first murderer allowed to the school. Known only as C-19 – as the the school’s governor strips the boys of their past, including their names – Erling immediately sets his sights on a grand escape plan. Much like his hard past and the choices he’s made makes him unfit to be here, Erling sees everyone else as inferior; however, as he’s exposed to more and more abuses perpetrated the school’s headmaster, he eventually cajoles others to join him in what will eventually be a mutiny the likes of which will require the Norwegian Army to suppress.
No doubt, many of us have seen the KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND before: it’s one of those all-too-common tales from human history where abuses were allowed to go on for the sake of political expediency. It’s sad how often the wrong choice is made by people in power – a testament displayed by the conflict Governor Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgard) undergoes when trying to ‘make things right’ when balancing his own morality against that asked of his young wife and even his staff. Bestyreren tries to do right, but, when these boys disagree, the situation quickly spirals into a battle of wills that the greatly outnumbered adults were bound to lose. I don’t know how much of what’s shown here is true – we’re told that it’s based on the true story of the school – but it’s still a haunting exploration of dire circumstances that manages to deliver a few inspirational moments to lives so fraught with peril.
In fact, if there’s a weakness here to the story, it may be that the script required certain parameters in order to remain loyal to history: the ending – without going into any great detail – feels almost a bit too predictable, maybe too theatrical. Again, I don’t want to spoil it, but, suffice it to say, it is snowy Norway, there’s some ice, plenty of injuries, and an escape from an island ‘fortress’ can only come by crossing the ice … and I’ll leave it at that. Now, some of this ‘predictability’ may be because, unfortunately, history is replete with examples of folks abusing their power over ones they find less deserving. However, there is a moment tacked on – a kind of narrative epilogue – which brings the tale full circle, reminding viewers that the major responsibility of those who survive such tragedies is to tell the stories of those (and for those) who didn’t.
The disc comes from Film Movement with Euforia Films AS & 4 ½ Fiksjon AS with OPUS Film, St. Paul Film, and Mact Productions. Picture quality is excellent – everything is photographed with layers of dread and oppression, including the many snowscapes, but there’s a great balance to the handful of intimate moments that show these kids maintain their own fragile humanity despite the circumstances they find themselves in. Audio was better-than-average though there were a few moments that were a bit garbled; thankfully, it’s all subtitled for me, and I had no major problem. Also, it’s safe to say that much of the film is sparse on dialogue, and, as such, most of it takes place with only one or two characters at a time. No real special features to speak of – a disappointment – however the disc does come as part of Film Movement’s ongoing “DVD of the Month Club” that spotlights independent and foreign films, of which it’s a great addition.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION. DEVIL’S ISLAND features a cast of young talents – boys of all ages – who deserve to find long acting careers if their talents on display here are any indication of things to come.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Film Movement provided me with DVD screener copy of KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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What? You don't know enough about me from the picture? Get a clue! I'm a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks! You can find me around the web as "Trekscribbler" or "Manchops". … more