Saturday 27 October 2012

On DVD: "The King of Devil's Island"

The King of Devil's Island is a handsome, absorbing Norwegian drama, based on a true story, that unfolds on the frozen island of Bastoy, site of a correctional school for maladjusted young men, during the first half of the 20th century. This was a place far beyond your liberal Scandinavian ideals: the pupils - one might say inmates - were referred to by numbers, and subject to back-breaking punishments intended to find and shape the "good Christian" within these rough-edged delinquents. They rarely did, by all accounts; more commonly, the violence inflicted upon the boys by their keepers begat violence in turn, the isolated location ensuring there was no easy way out of the cycle. Barely has the burly, robust C19, only belatedly revealed to be named Erling, arrived on Bastoy than he's eyeing up the padlocked boathouse and wondering how far he might get on his own. Yet it soon becomes clear he's to assume an even greater role - as a leader, and protector to his more vulnerable contemporaries.

Writer-director Marius Holst shoots what follows in muted, institutional greys and blues, but he doesn't stint on the generic pleasures of the prison movie: the gruff character actor drafted in to serve as warden (here, a typically authoritative Stellan Skarsgard), and - on the boys' side - the gradual accumulation of the tools and knowledge (and sheer will) required to effectuate change. One of the boys is seen with a rabbit in his shoe-cleaning box, in Alcatraz/Shawshank style; there's a dining-hall rebellion reminiscent of Scum; and eventually relations between pupils and staff get outright If...-fy. (Why is it such a thrill to see school desks thrown through third-floor windows? Is it because we never did it ourselves?)

Characterisation throughout is nicely shaded, as much among the boys - persuasive casting enabling us to distinguish between Benjamin Helstad's combative C19, the appeasing C1 (Trond Nilssen) and their variously put-upon dormmates - as among their rulers, with Skarsgard's mantra of "discipline with compassion" set in relief by a junior master rather keener to abuse whatever power he has. If the script sometimes strays into writerly territory - such as C19 and C1's collaboration on tales of the seafaring life - Holst insistently yokes it to more muscular spectacle, like the last-reel crawl across the ice that invokes Griffith and Eisenstein (or even, possibly, James Cameron). That we care who lives and dies by this point can be attributed to the consummate patience, skill and attention to detail we've come to expect from our Scandinavian brethren in recent years.

The King of Devil's Island is available on DVD from Monday.

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