MARIUS Holst's King of Devil's Island may conform to a lot of prison-movie conventions but it still manages to grip by virtue of its powerful performances and foundation in truth.
Based on a little-known but dark chapter in Norwegian history, the film tells the true story of a 1915 uprising by teenage offenders at Bastøy Island, a correctional facility for "maladjusted children" that, rather like a teenage Alcatraz, functioned from 1900 to 1953.
Upon being founded, Bastøy was designed to raise delinquent children in accordance with suitable standards of conduct rather than punishing them but it developed a reputation for its harsh conditions – not just the frozen environment but also the strict, sometimes abusive methods of its regime. Holst's film, inspired by a meeting the director once had with a former boy on the island, examines the events leading up to the 1915 rebellion and is both a tale of triumph against adversity and a dissection of how evil can grow in institutions that are sealed off from world view.
The story picks up as two new teenagers arrive at the island. One of them, the 17-year-old Erling (Benjamin Helstad), is strong-minded and determined to escape, while the other, Ivar (Magnus Langlete), is of a more fragile disposition.
Both arouse the attention of the island's authorities, albeit for different reasons. The school's no-nonsense governor, Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgard), quickly identifies Erling as a potential trouble-maker in need of special assistance and keeps a close eye on him, while also assigning model dormitory leader Olav (Trond Nilssen) to help with this rehabilitation process.
But Ivar is singled out by Bastøy's aggressive enforcer Brathen (Kristoffer Joner) for sexual abuse, the outcome of which eventually provides the catalyst for the uprising.
Holst's film may follow the same plot beats of a lot of prison movies but is given its own identity by several notable factors that work in its favour. The tone is consistently sombre, while the direction is nicely restrained. There are no grand-standing performances or gestures that play to crowd-pleasing tendencies, which, in turn, makes for a tough watch but a more realistic, less contrived feeling.
The worst of the abuse isn't shown but its effect and implication is explored in an intelligent, sensitive manner, enabling the performances to feel more authentic for it.
Skarsgard, in particular, stands out as the God-fearing disciplinarian whose natural inclination is to act in the best interests of the boys but whose circumstances and wayward priorities curtail his ability to do the right thing. He is a monster but a quiet one, crippled by his own cowardice, and therefore not a caricatured movie creation.
It is a performance a million miles removed from his more genial blockbuster persona in films like Mamma Mia! and Thor but one that recalls the kind of work that first brought him to Hollywood's attention in films like Lars von Trier's Breaking The Waves and Erik Skjoldbjærg's original Insomnia.
But there's equally strong support from the boys, many of whom are untrained actors. Of those, Nilssen offers a quietly efficient study in mounting rage as the seemingly obedient Olav, whose slow-building friendship with Erling stirs his own dormant moral code and gives him the courage and belief to take on the authorities in spite of his own impending release for 'good behaviour'.
Helstad, meanwhile, invests his Erling with a fierce resolve and an undying spirit even in the face of the apparent hopelessness of his environment. He is the hero of the piece, whose own journey is mirrored by the tale of the long-suffering whale he repeatedly recalls during his own time at sea at several points in the film. But therein lies another of the subtle differences in Holst's film. Keen to avoid falling into many of the same old clichés, the director uses the idea of the sea and Bastøy's island setting to have the prison serve as a metaphor for a ship.
Hence, while Skarsgard's Bestyreren regularly talks of his inmates pulling together as a crew and steering in the right direction, he is eventually faced with mutiny for his heavy-handed practices. The uprising, when it comes, is eventually put down by the Norwegian military.
Yet even during these scenes, Holst employs restraint. The violent nature of the rebellion is brutally portrayed, yet the camera doesn't linger. And there is a palpable sense of release from the inmates, as well as fear on the part of those who find the tables turned upon them. Yet any triumph is only fleeting.
Hence, the final scenes are both moving and thought-provoking, especially once Holst also drops in real-life footage of the teenagers at Bastøy over the end credits as a lasting reminder of what took place.
He admits that the "legend of Bastøy" has haunted him through the years, ever since his encounter with one of its veterans, so it is perhaps a fitting tribute to conclude that his film lingers and haunts in much the same way. It is a sobering experience.
(Glasgow Film Theatre and Filmhouse, Edinburgh, from July 27-August 2)
Contextual targeting label: