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aka - Kongen av Bast√ły
Norway 2010
Directed by
Marius Holst
116 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

King Of Devil's Island

Synopsis: It is 1915 and the island of Bastøy, located in the Oslo fjord in Norway, is home to a reform school for teenage male delinquents. Given alphanumeric IDs and kept to a dourly vigilant regimen the institution is run with brutal efficiency until one day a new boy (Benjamin Helstad) arrives who refuses to be cowed.

Bastøy is not the tropical Devil’s Island of Papillon (1973) nor is Benjamin Helstad the effortlessly charming hero of Cool Hand Luke (1967), but King of Devil's Island shares with these classics of the genre the story of a rebellious loner and his battle with his callously dedicated keepers. Marius Holst’s film impresses to the extent that it departs from the conventions of the Hollywood escape movie, wobbles insofar as it adheres to them.

For a start it is a superb production, one of those intensely physical efforts that makes you feel the pain of the cast and crew. The bitter coldness of the Norwegian winter and the grim measure of the boy’s daily routine is brought home with chilling rigour. One feels the icy wind coming off the indifferent sea, the cutting rain and the cold, mercilessly bare walls of the boy’s home. This barren frigidity is echoed by the cast playing the boys’ guardians, notably Stellan Skarsgård as the governor and Kristoffer Joner as his cowardly enforcer. Much of the strength of the film is in the way in which it makes palpable the brutality of the turn-of-the-century notion of “Christian” rectitude whilst a disgust for the hypocrisy and outright dishonesty that such seeming probity masks is also strongly evident. The physical imprisonment enforced by the bourgeois authorities is thus an analogue of their own existential imprisonment, which in the case of both the governor and his right-hand man has its sexual dimension. All this is brilliantly realized although, one must say, with a brilliance that provides cold comfort to the viewer.

Playing the main character, Erling, or C19, Benjamin Helstad is very effective, cockily tough and determined, winning our admiration without needing to be hero-ized whilst amongst his fellow inmates,Trond Nilssen as C1, his one real friend, brings a softer more conflicted quality that adds depth to the drama of the film.

Although based on real events in which the Norwegian government used the army to suppress a reform school rebellion one might be inclined question the structure and pacing of the film’s latter stages as it shift gears from being a low key but compelling account of Erling’s attempts to find his way in this despicable environment to a more mythicising level as the collective worm finally turns. Briefly cathartic as this is, personally, I suspect that the film would have been stronger had it ended before finally shifting into a more conventional form, the only section of the film that is set outside the bleak setting of Bastøy and to use a warmer palette. Nothwithstanding this reservation, King Of Devil's Island is in every sense of the word, a powerfully chilling film.

 

 

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