STELLAN SKARSGÅRD AND BENJAMIN HELSTAD IN THE KING OF DEVIL'S ISLANDA reformatory ordeal
The Dickensian reformatory saga from Norway The King of Devil's Island
is well and expensively done and has even an epic quality, but it's so conventional there is not much that's memorable about it. Set in 1915, based on a real revolt in which the army was called in and fired upon the 11- to 18-year-old revolutionaries, this film lumbers along for much of its nearly two hours with the usual torments: beatings, pointless rock-hauling, cut rations and solitary confinement in a sort of caged bed, a pedophile supervisor, suicide, and futile but heroic escape attempts. We have been here before in other times and countries. The story comes to life during the last half hour when the exciting revolt occurs, only to have that spoiled by a botched finale. Handsome cinematography by John Andreas Andersen and the convincing looks of many non-pro boy actors may offset these weaknesses for those who like this sort of punishment.
Bastøy is the name of the prison for boys with "behavior problems." The main one, who arrives at the outset like Taher Rahim in Audiard's A Prophet,
is Erling (Benjamin Helstad), a husky whale harpooner rumored to have killed somebody. Like all the boys he's promptly given a number, C-19, instead of a name, and becomes linked with Olav (Trond Nilssen), whose moniker, C-1, designates him as an old-timer in that dormitory and responsible for its discipline. Olav's more sensitive face is to make him marginally more sympathetic than the stolid Erling (who somebody has said resembles the equally blank Channing Tatum). But Erling is to provide the revolt with its brute force.
Stellan Skarsgård, as the Governor Bestyreren, provides a measure of moral complexity. The Governor seems to believe genuinely that the breaking down and building up of the boys is a process that contributes to society. He doesn't seem to get that the near-medieval harshness creates wrecked shells. In case we're missing this there's Ivar (Magnus Langlete), a wispier, slightly haunting boy who can't quite cope to begin with, and then is forced to submit to sexual indignities we don't see by the predictably creepy supervisor Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner). There are other characters, too many actually, including the Governor's young and unmemorable wife (Magnar Botten), clueless visiting inspectors, an old boy, and all the young boys. These only serve to weaken the already rambling story.
Things do get momentous and explosive for a while at the end. And there are the much-massaged metaphors. Governor Bestyreren tells Erling this is a new ship, and he is the captain. Erling recalls a symbolic thrice-harpooned whale that took a day to die. Erling and Ivar tell each other a story about a whale that can't be killed, and Bråthen's sniveling moral depravity contrasts with the misguided stolidity of Skarsgård's character, whom the boys grudgingly spare even when they are tearing the place apart. Some will remember the blue-green images, the big dining hall with the staff and inmates strikingly arrayed in perpendicular tables; the freezing cold dormitories; the stark snowy land; even the uniforms and haircuts. But will they remember in which prison-reform school ordeal movie they saw all this? The striking images and expensive production wash up on the shore of a conventional, rambling script.
Bastøy lasted on in its spartan punitive orphanage form in real life from 1900 till the early Fifties and now, rather ironically, is the jewel in the crown of an "enlightened" and liberal Norwegian prison system, with cottages, minimum security (except that you can't swim away), cable TV, and other joys. The film, whose original title is Kongen av Bastøy
, was released in Norway in late 2010 and had a successful theatrical run. It came out in New York in November briefly at Cinema Village and has been showing starting January 6, 2012 at the new 1746 Post Street cinema of the San Francisco Film Society, where it was screened for this review.