Alcatraz For Kids

The King of Devil’s Island ****

The island of Bastøy was a facility for young male offenders somewhere off the coast of Norway for the first half of the twentieth century – sort of like Alcatraz for kids. (It’s now a minimum security prison for adults). Marius Holst’s new film The King of Devil’s Island looks at a particular series of events on the island in 1915, and the less you know about those events going into the film, the more gripping it will be.

The story is told through the eyes of Erling (Benjamin Helstad, who has a touch of the very young Russell Crowe about him), a new inmate on the island who may or may not have committed murder. He’s a classic, old-school rebel, with a natural defiance of authority and a healthy mind to escape as soon as possible. The forces he’s up against include the island’s Governor (an awesome Stellan Skarsgård), his “housefather” and general adult creep Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner) and a bully (Morten Løvstad). There’s also another newcomer, Ivar (Magnus Langlete) who’s a little too weak and fragile for this kind of environment, and long-termer Olav (Trond Nilssen, who will become a star out of this), who, in his six years on the island, has morphed from a tiny young robber into the Governor’s crony – his eyes and ears among the prisoners – while also developing a sense of morality and judgement.

There’s a lot of familiar “prison movie” tropes here, and for the first hour or so (it’s a solid two hour film) it’s possible to get a little bored, as things are a tad predictable. But the true events on which the film are based are wonderfully stranger than fiction, and by the end of the film I was deeply moved and thrilled by what I had seen. Again, don’t research the backstory before you see the film if you want the richest experience.

Amongst the dramatic elements of the story there runs a warm tale of friendships made in the face of adversity. All the acting is good (Nilssen being the standout – here comes Hollywood for this one) and the film is beautifully shot, often in the snow. More stately and classical than most Norwegian fare, which tends to be edgy and contemporary, the beautiful and haunting King of Devil’s Island again shows that this tiny country consistently punches above its weight in the world of cinema.

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