King of Devil’s Island

Original title or aka: Kongen av Bastøy

Director: Marius Holst
Starring: Stellan Skarsgaard, Benjamin Helstad and Kristoffer Joner
Distributor: Palace Films
Runtime: 116 mins. Reviewed in May 2012
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Mature themes and violence

The physical, mental and sexual abuse of minors has become a key issue in many societies. Films have reflected this concern. The trend is developing in cultures beyond English-speaking countries where it has been a justice issue for more than a decade.

This film is based on a true story. Its setting is an institution for wayward boys in Norway, 1915, the island of Borstoy off the Norwegian coast.

Erling is 17 and is transported with a younger boy to the island. They are read the rules, given uniforms and told that they would be referred to always as C19 and C5. Another boy, who has been at Borstoy for six years (from the age of 11) for stealing from the Church poor box, is C1 and is about to be released. These are the central characters amongst a large group of inmates.

The institution is presided over by Stellan Skarsgaard who, in another life, might have been a benign administrator, but who imposes the rules despite their cruelty and, when a crisis arises because of sexual abuse, covers up for the sake of the common good – an argument that was used in all kinds of organisations.

The look of the film is bleak, often wintry, dark and blue-grey in tone. There is little relief for the boys or for the staff.

The plot is more or less as expected, hardships and humiliations, a suicide, escape attempts, a revolt by the boys, attacks on the staff. In the context, they often feel quite desperate. There is a pervading metaphor for the central characters. Erling has worked as a harpoonist on a whaling ship and tells the story of a wounded whale that survives a day with three harpoons in its multi-scarred body. He is the wounded whale – and he develops the story to embrace his perspective on C1, the staff and the governor of the institute.

Little relief while watching the film. The cast is persuasive. The wrongs appalling. This is the kind of film that becomes part of learning from history as well as a challenge to conscience and alertness to these problems in our own day.

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