Iceland’s top director, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, who scored a couple of years ago with the very original road movie “Cold Fever,” has come up with a piece of nostalgia more in keeping with his earlier, less well-known, coming-of-age pic, “Movie Days.” Mingling nostalgia with an incisive look at Icelandic social manners and mores of 50 years ago, he’s packaged a handsomely produced but dramatically uneven family saga. Fests that have previously featured this director’s work will probably want to include this one in their programs, but wider release will be patchy.
“Devil’s Island” is set in the period immediately following World War II, when the tiny island country is still occupied by American forces, though the big army base, Camp Thule, has been turned into makeshift accommodations for homeless civilians. The Tomasson family live in a former army barracks. Tommi works at the docks and quietly regrets the fact that 40 years earlier he’d agreed to marry the cranky, witchlike Karolina to give her unborn child a name.
Somehow, they have stayed married through the years, though that’s more than can be said for Karolina’s daughter, Gogo, who, with one marriage behind her and three grown children, has decided to marry an American soldier, called Charlie Brown, and move with him to Kansas City.
Fridriksson centers his story on Gogo’s sons, the aptly named Baddi (Baltasar Kormakur,) an oafish, frequently drunken loudmouth, and his more sensitive kid brother, Danni (Sveinn Geirsson). Baddi follows his mother to the U.S. but doesn’t stay long, returning after a while with a large American car, an American accent, American slang phrases and American clothes and attitudes: His hero is Elvis Presley. Before long he’s infuriating the rest of his family by hosting wild parties in the cramped dwelling and frequently getting into drunken fights with everyone.
Danni watches all this from the sidelines, saying little but quietly sick at heart when Baddi seduces Hveragerdur, the daughter of a neighbor; Danni had been too shy to approach her himself. Baddi and Hveragerdur marry, but all too soon he’s treating her as appallingly as he does all the other members of his family. Danni, meanwhile, pulls himself together and successfully undergoes a course in pilot training. But a tragedy, foreseen by the prescient Karolina, shatters the world of the Tomassons.
Story is long and rambling, and embraces numerous marginal characters, including, amusingly, Hveragerdur’s huge father, who, for a brief period, looks to become a shot-put champ. Unfortunately, far too many scenes involve Baddi and his pals indulging in brutal, drunken binges, and after a while this probably accurate but aesthetically revolting insistence on depicting a bunch of louts getting plastered gets seriously boring.
More successful is Fridriksson’s evident delight in recalling the music, movies and TV shows of the era, as the Tomassons and their friends embrace American culture with relish.
Best performance here comes from Geirsson as the sensitive Danni, with some of the other thesps tending to overplay their parts. Production values are top-notch in every department, and there’s a driving music score of vintage rock ‘n’ roll standards of the era.