An account of one of two times in history when the Norwegian Army fired on its fellow countrymen, big-budget co-production “King of Devil’s Island” turns the story of a 1915 uprising at a brutally run boys’ reform school into old-fashioned epic drama. Watchable if not entirely engrossing, this classically lensed tale about the misuse of power offers sweeping panoramas, stunning snowy landscapes, stock character types and a creakily generic narrative. Still in local theaters, the Christmas 2010 release sold 232,000 ducats in seven weeks. Further fest action seems assured; pic could play to undemanding arthouse audiences in some territories.
Located on a remote island in the Oslo fjord, four kilometers from the nearest town, the prison camp-style Bastoy Boys Home functions as a warehouse for “maladjusted” youth, most from underprivileged or broken homes. Some unfortunate inhabitants serve long sentences for infractions as minor as stealing from a church collection box.
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With the stated goal of turning out “honorable, humble, useful Christian boys,” the school officials systematically break down their young charges through cruel discipline, exhausting manual labor and collective punishment. The inmates are also forced to wear uniforms and use numbers instead of names, and are forbidden to discuss their past.
The narrative proper begins with the arrival of hunky rebel Erling (Benjamin Helstad), a whaling-boat harpooner rumored to have committed murder. Erling locks horns with the platitude-spouting school governor (Stellan Skarsgard), broadens the worldview of earnest dorm leader Olav (Trond Nilssen) and takes on the sadistic dorm master (Kristoffer Joner), who’s given to sexually abusing weaker boys such as fumbling Ivar (Magnus Langlete).
The longish action leading up to the tragedy follows a predictable arc that will be familiar to viewers who have seen more than one boarding-school tale or prison drama; indeed, the screenplay by Dennis Magnusson contains superfluous characters and scenes that hinder dramatic flow. The role of the governor’s wife (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) is particularly underdeveloped, while her compassionate-seeming but hypocritical husband is too bluntly drawn.
Silence-heavy performance style is derived from the school of intense glances. Aiming for an appropriate look, helmer Marius Holst (“Cross My Heart and Hope to Die”) cast non-pros to play the boys, but Helstad’s rough, swaggering performance lacks charisma and screen presence. More effective are the expressive Nilssen, tough yet vulnerable as Olav, and scrawny Langlete as the doomed Ivar.
With exteriors shot mostly in Estonia, the period production details and location work look to have spared no expense, and include extensive special effects. Lensing by John Andreas Andersen (who won a cinematography prize at the Gothenburg fest) underlines the anguish of the characters and the harshness of nature.