Reform and boarding schools are often depicted as a centre for corruption and abuse because the victims are children discarded by society. What makes these films more disturbing is they are usually based on true events. King of Devil's Island
is about a student revolt in 1915 that changed the way troubled adolescents would be viewed and treated in the generations that followed in Scandinavia.
At 17, Erling (Benjamin Helstad) was renamed C19 and deposited at the Bastøy Boys Home correctional facility. It was rumoured he killed someone. Olav (Trond Nilssen), or C1, is the leader in their barracks and held responsible for the actions of all the boys within it. When he learns of Erling's escape plan, he asks only that he wait until after he is discharged in a few weeks. However, tragedy at the hands of the dorm master (Kristoffer Joner) followed by indifference from the governor (Stellan Skarsgård) are the final injustice that pushes the boys over the edge. Erling's insistence that they deserve to be treated better and his constant defiance incites a rebellion that had to be quelled by the Norwegian Army.
Though set in the early 20th century, the period in which the narrative takes place is irrelevant. The lack of modern technology makes little impact in the juvenile prison. The focus is indirectly placed on the hardships and wrongdoings they endure, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions even though the tale is seen through the biased eyes of the victims. The callousness of the administration is demonstrated repeatedly through their actions, insensitivity and speech.
When it's finally made obvious that no one cares about their well-being, the boys are left with only one of two choices: keep the status quo or stand up and protect each other. Choosing the latter takes a lot of nerve and it's impossible not to encourage them as they put an end to the tyranny. The film, though a little long, does a great job of getting the audience behind the boys for this moment, building the tension and desperation for change.
Helstad and Nilssen deliver outstanding dramatic performances. The former displays a hardness that doesn't make him a bad person, but instead someone who believes in what is right. He won the Best Breakthrough Performance Award at Edinburgh International Film Festival. In contrast, Nilssen has a quiet resolve that burns with a desire to do more, but is suppressed by a fear of disobedience. Skarsgård exudes discipline, positioning him as a force to be reckoned with in the school. However, it is only near the end that he shows his true colours.
The only thing that points to this film being based in truth is the written introduction at the start and archival images at the end. Otherwise, it's just an upsetting and inspiring story of a group of boys that changed the system.
Director: Marius Holst
Starring: Stellan Skarsgård
, Benjamin Helstad
and Kristoffer Joner