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Film Review: King of Devil's Island

29th June 2012

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King of Devil’s Island (or Kongen av Bastoy) is a Norwegian language film, directed by Marius Holst and starring Stellan Skarsgard, set in 1915 on a remote island detention centre for wayward boys somewhere off the Norwegian mainland.

The film, based on real events, tells the story of Erling, Olav and Ivar, who through the regime of Bastoy have been stripped of their real identities - and so respectively become C19, C1 and C5.

The depersonalisation is a typical trope of the dystopian genre, and King of Devil’s Island packs a strong punch. In the manner of Orwell, those in charge (including Skarsgard as Bastoy’s director Hakon and Kristoffer Joner as the hated Housefather Braaten) impose a regime of intimidation and violence on their charges – all, of course, in alleged pursuit of the greater Christian good. Those in charge see everything, the inmates are told as they arrive. They hear everything. And of course, everything is written down in the book.

Time, as in 1984, is immaterial: the inmates have no past, we are told close to the beginning, and no future. Nothing matters but the present. The boys’ lives, suspended on the island of Bastoy, are unable to move forward – essentially they appear as trapped in their own bleak fates as they are by the half-frozen fjords that surround them.

It is telling that we know little of the back-stories of the three central characters. It is as though, after continually being told by Hakon and Braaten that the past is irrelevant, the audience and potentially the inmates themselves begin to believe that they really do have none. Before this can fully take root in the mind of the audience, however, we are given snatched moments from their past lives – the most notable of these being the letters Erling receives from the mysterious ‘Elsa’. The beauty of the film is that these moments are so rare, highlighting the lack of humanity that Bastoy’s inmates are permitted to have whilst reminding us that they had lives that have somehow led them to this point.

The language permitted, too, is strictly regulated. There is so little that doesn’t consist of “yes, housefather, thank you housefather”, that the moments when the boys do speak to each other are often stunted – whilst still remaining powerful. The almost inability to communicate once again highlights how the system has almost broken them – but hasn’t, quite. This leads to events that leave the audience in turns both reeling with shock and hoping that Braaten will get his well-deserved comeuppance.    

There are moments in King of Devil’s Island that evoke huge anger – the hypocrisy of Hakon in the face of Olav being the most unforgettable. The brutality is at times difficult to watch – but the culmination of events, the decisions the boys take despite their treatment, and ultimately the ending, however unlikely it might seem as the film progresses, do have the potential to be uplifting.     

King of Devil’s Island is released in the UK today (29th June). 


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