King of Devil’s Island (Kongen av Bastøy, 2010)
October 23, 2012 2 Comments
Upon their arrival at Bastøy Correctional Facility in the Oslo fjord, young offenders Erling (Benjamin Helstad) and Ivar (Magnus Langlete) are renamed C19 and C5 and shown to their new lodgings under the watchful eye of old-hand C1 (Trond Nilssen). After nine years, C1 is awaiting his pardon from Governor Håkon (Stellan Skarsgård), something he is not willing to let Erling jeopardise with his unruly behaviour and repeated escape attempts. When C5 is prayed upon by a Braaten (Kristoffer Joner), a member of staff notorious amongst the boys as a child abuser, however, C1 must decide what is worth more: his freedom from Bastøy or from his own guilty conscious.
With Scandinavian cinema enjoying a wider audience — and acclaim — than ever thanks to the likes of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Let The Right One In and Troll Hunter (all of which are soon to have their own American remake), there has arguably never been a better time for foreign language fare. First blown away by Marius Holst’s King of Devil’s Island during 2011’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, it has lost none of its power and potency in the intervening year; if anything, the effect is even more haunting in the light of the Norweigian massacre of July last year.
Oppressive from its opening moments, which depict a whale being mercilessly harpooned by sailors, Holst’s film is a masterclass in the slow build-up of tension, painting a landscape as unforgiving as the staff who inhabit it. From the instant Erling sets foot on the island, a collision course with Stellan Skarsgard’s imposing governor is set with a crushing inevitability. There isn’t a moment of warmth, of rest or respite, as the characters engage in their daily drudgery amid the snow-capped barracks and skeletal woodland of Devil’s Island.
It is perhaps fitting then, that it is so difficult to warm to anyone in the picture. Erling, our protagonist, is a suspected murderer who thinks only of himself, leaving his dorm-mates to suffer as he plans yet another lonesome escape attempt. Ivar, meanwhile, is presented only as a victim, a thousand-yard stare and confused desperation doing little to facilitate any sense of agency, or, as a result, empathy. No, if there is a hero of the piece it is Olav, a prefect-like figure who enjoys the film’s strongest character arc. While each performance is powerful in its own way, it is the conflict and determination in Olav’s eyes that proves the most compelling.
As history dictates, the hurt and anger and the injustice culminate in a riotous release, as a burning barn brings an orange glow to the screen for the first time in the film’s duration. While it allows for at least a trace of resolution and redemption, it does little to diminish the desperation and desolation that has built up over the rest of the movie. After all, this was not to be the end of the facility, and a truly happy ending was never really on the cards to begin with. The whale, it seems, got off lightly.
King of Devil’s Island is out on DVD, Blu-ray and available on digital download from 29th October.