Set in Norway’s infamous Bastøy Prison, once a reformatory prison colony for delinquent boys, The King of Devil’s Island depicts the lead up to a series of riots that took place at the facility during the early part of the 20th century.
Like all prison films, the arrival of new inmate Erling (Benjamin Helstad) sets off a chain of events which disrupts the previous order and control exerted by Bastøy’s chief warden (played by the ever serious Stellan Skarsgård). While the boy’s are kept in line through a brutal punishment regime, and the performance of draining physical labor, the barren and inhospitable environment of the island is enough to discourage the inmates from even considering the possibility of escaping from their incredibly brutal existence.
The King of Devil’s Island hits most of the expected notes from a film of its type, as Erling’s open displays of insubordination and rebellious streak are slowly adopted by his fellow prisoners, while the wardens do everything they can to maintain their authority. The film rises about these well worn tropes due to the effective use of its unusual setting and the strength of the performances by its mainly young cast.
The unrelentingly austere and bleak environment contributes to the film’s stark depiction as to what life might have been like at the prison, where young boys and teenagers are cruelly broken down before been sent back to rejoin society, assuming that they manage to survive. Director Marius Holst is also successful in charting the development of a number of friendships the inmates, and Skarsgård’s strong performance lends the film’s chief villain a degree of complexity.
With a haunting ending likely to stay with viewers long after the film’s end, The King of Devil’s Island is a strong entry in the prison drama genre, and makes good use of it’s historical source material to create a brooding but affecting experience.
The King of Devil’s Island is in Australian cinemas from 3 May through Palace Films.