It’s a fine art to be able to make a film that aggressively yanks at the heart strings rather than just pluck at them. Plucking at them implies that a film taps just enough on the kinds of subjects that are guaranteed to superficially move people, but without infusing them with the kind of realistic grit that will hammer the film into their long-term memory.
King of Devil’s Island is the kind of film that tears at the heart-strings with two tightly clenched hands. Set during the early 20th century, at a youth prison cut off from the surrounding world by freezing waters, it’s a story of genuine camaraderie in the face of oppressive authority and extreme physical conditions.
Erling is a teenage boy who ends up being sent to Bastoy (Devil’s Island) youth prison for allegedly killing a man, though this isn’t clear. His past and life outside Bastoy are shrouded in mystery, apart from the letters he receives from a girl back home. Amidst the boys at Bastoy, the tough and rebellious Erling makes friends with Olav, who is in many ways his polar opposite; having been at Bastoy for six years, he is leader of his barracks, has always followed the rules and hopes to be allowed the leave the island after the next governors’ review.
In charge of Bastoy is Bestyreren, played with monolithic authority by the brilliant Stellan Skarsgård. While he never raises his voice or a hand to the boys, no boys dare question him and with that cold, proud and almost pained look in Skarsgård’s eyes, it’s easy to see why no one has ever dared attempt an escape from the island.
Erling’s arrival at Bastoy shakes up the ship, and before long he becomes a de facto leader among the boys, who begin to respect him more than the lecherous house-master Brathen (a slimy performance from Kristoffer Joner). While Brathen is an outright despicable character, the film does a good job of not making Bestyreren an outright tyrant. His firm belief that his iron-fisted running of Bastoy is what’s best for the boys evokes a strange kind of sympathy early on, but his weak stance when he hears of Brathen’s perverse behaviour reveals him to be a man who privileges his pride above everything else.
The daily toils that the boys experience at Bastoy are shot with effective levels of grit. The grey, washed-out look of the film enforces the feeling of isolation, and the scenes where we see the boys chopping trees, working the fields or eating the unappealing-looking mulch all add to the cold atmosphere. Thanks to this bleakness, we particularly cherish the comforting moments whenever Erling and Olav get together to write their analogous story about sailors and the whale that got harpooned three times but just kept going.
Aside from the growing bond between the lead boys, the plot doesn’t develop in any other direction. Bestyreren’s wife, who at the start looks as if she might play a larger part in the film, ends up being virtually non-existent, much like the relationship between her and her husband. Brathen is your typical villainous nonce, and the rest of the boys at Bastoy function as a fairly faceless mass. Thankfully, the raw lead performances mean that your attention will rarely stray from them.
Benjamin Helstad and Trond Nilssen – Erling and Olav respectively – complement each other through strongly contrasting roles. Helstad is physical, wild and plays his reckless character with a snarling relish. Nilssen’s performance is more restrained and regimented, though his eyes burn with a zeal for justice that comes to fruition later in the film. Like their characters, both actors grow throughout the film, as they go from being archetypal ‘good boy’ and ‘bad boy’ to balanced, intense performers.
The conclusion of the film is one that would’ve made the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein proud, but even then the film doesn’t get carried away with revolutionary fervour, showing that the boys are part of a system from which there is ultimately no escape. The film may not give too many characters room to develop, but the dynamic between Erling and Olav is so mesmerising that you’ll hardly notice how anaemic the rest of the cast is. In a film that could easily have slipped into cheaply-inspiring sentimentality, director Marius Holst does well to maintain an honest and sobering level of realism throughout.