King of Devil’s Island (2010), though not an easy film to watch, is a drama which demands to be seen. Starring Stellan Skarsgård, Kristoffer Joner and Benjamin Helstad and directed by Marius Holst, this is a harrowing lesson in the harsh reality of human nature and man’s inner strength in the face of adversity.
Based on true events, the story is set in the infamous correctional facility of Bastøy on a remote and inhospitable island in the Norwegian fjords, during the early part of the 20th century. When a new and headstrong boy called Erling (Helstad) arrives it soon becomes clear to everyone, especially Bastøy’s governor Håkon (Skarsgård), that this troubled young man is not ready to conform to the strict regime on the island. Before long Erling’s rebellious nature comes to the fore with life changing results for them all.
King of Devil’s Island is a devastating film. Shot on location in Estonia and Norway, the mesmeric natural beauty of its setting and the minimal style and colour palette in which it is shot is breathtaking. Both the snow and ice covered countryside outside backing onto a seemingly endless sea which stretches beyond the island’s rough beach, and the facility’s interior monotone colour scheme of grey and white, create perfect neutral surroundings against which the action plays out.
This harsh air continues with the film’s overriding realism – both in the conditions in which the boys live and in the brutality of the men who run the concentration camp facility – and at points threatens to engulf the viewer with its seeping sense of despair and hopelessness. From this angle the film works marvellously, leaving you with a real feeling of what these young men (one of whose only crime had been to steal a few pence from a church offering plate) went through, and hence an admiration for their stoic perseverance to survive in the face of insurmountable odds.
Ultimately however this film revolves around three people – Erling, Håkon and Brâthan (Kristoffer Joner) the sadistic head of Erling’s section within Bastøy. That by the end of the film it is Erling and his fellow inmates with whom the viewer sides will come as no surprise. However it is the performances of the actors who bring these three disparate characters to life which is undoubtedly the most memorable aspect of the film. From the outstanding performance of newcomer Helstad as the damaged Erling to Skarsgård as the ineffectual and ultimately weak Håkon and Joner as his twisted subordinate, the relationship which plays out between these men will hold your attention until the film’s final reel.
Shocking, moving and mesmeric in equal proportions, King of Devil’s Island makes essential viewing if only as a warning against the extremities of human nature and man’s cruelty against his fellow man.