Saturday, 28 April 2012
FILM REVIEW: KING OF DEVIL'S ISLAND
Hell is often depicted as fire and brimstone; an inferno of flames to torture the soul. For me, Hell would be cold: freezing temperatures, driving winds and snow, lots of snow. Indeed, not unlike the landscape of Bastoy Island; a rocky isle off the coast of Norway where ‘maladjusted’ boys were once sent to repent for their crimes, and by all accounts an actual Hell on Earth.
That’s where, in 1915, 17-year-old former harpooner, Erling, (Benjamin Helstad), finds himself after committing (we’re lead to believe) murder but who is spared prison because of his youth.
He’s dubbed C19 upon arrival (the boys, aged 11 to 18, are assigned numbers in place of names) and immediately forced into the Bastoy way of life: head shaved, uniform issued; manual labour, slops for dinner, and plenty of corporal punishment. Spare the rod, spoil the child.
That’s the Christian way, or at least it is under the rule of the Governor (Stellan Skarsgard), a man who believes punishment should be compassionate lest it be deemed cruel.
But he’s also one to turn a blind eye to the transgressions of his employees, in particular Brathen (Kristoffer Joner), whose attention to C5 (Magnus Langlete), a slow-witted boy who arrives with C19, is less than scholarly.
This hypocrisy, coupled with C19’s desire to escape, and the admiration he inspires in his fellow Bastoy boys -- particularly C1 (Trond Nilssen), a six-year inmate imprisoned for stealing from the church money box, aged 11, and about to be released for good behaviour -- brings life on the island to a head. It’s not too long before the boys are revolting.
Based on a true story, Marius Holt’s film is a powerful indictment, not so much of religion but the abuse of power in the name of God. It's also an examination of the corruptive influence of unchallenged power, for Bastoy was, literally, an island unto itself.
The 1915 incident marked only the second time in Norway’s history that the nation’s army was turned on its citizens. Sadly the film (beautifully shot by John Andreas Andersen but in no way detracting from the harshness of the environment, physical and emotional) doesn’t feature a coda at the end detailing the events and what happened to Bastoy Island afterwards, or if any of those people depicted are real, composites or fictional constructs.
Still, one can’t help but be moved by the ordeal of the boys or fail to sympathise with their actions. And while the film focusses primarily on C19 and C1 – the pair experiencing a rocky relationship throughout which is beautifully handled – we come to recognise their fellow boys: the bully who becomes an ally, the boy with the rabbit, the chubby-faced youngster willing to take up arms.
King of Devil’s Island is a stark reminder of times and ways passed but which could just as easily happen again (or be happening now). It's also a reminder that Hell is so often a prison of earthly creation.