Monday, November 14, 2011

Youth in Revolt: King of Devil’s Island

The Bastøy Boys Home was no Boys Town. Neither was the governor any sort of Father Flanagan. Yet, both were considered above reproach until a violent uprising amongst the student-inmates shocked Norway. Their doomed revolt and the events that precipitated it are vividly dramatized in Marius Holst’s King of Devil’s Island (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In 1915, the Christian progressive zeal for reform was evidently as alive in Norway as it was in America. On the surface, Bastøy perfectly fit preconceived notions of how juvenile offenders should be handled. Situated on an island in a fjord off the Oslo coast, it was pretty much winter year-round in Bastøy. That made escape through the icy waters essentially impossible. It also allowed plenty of time for character-building outdoor labor and moral instruction. However, the trustees were unaware of the secret corruption at the institution.

Governor Bestyreren suspects there is a reason why Bråthen has remained at Bastøy for so long. Unfortunately, since the cruel house-father is aware he has been skimming funds to support his young demanding wife, the governor takes a see-no-evil approach with his tightly wound subordinate. This will prove a wee bit short-sighted when two new boys arrive.

Rumored to be a murderer, Erling (a.k.a. C-19) is like the Randle Patrick McMurphy of Bastøy. Rebellious by nature, he opens contemplates escape, longing to return to a life at sea. Also arriving that day is Ivar (a.k.a. C-5), a weaker boy, ill-equipped to deal with either Bastøy’s harsh environment or Bråthen’s inappropriate attention. Tragically, circumstances escalate to a point that pushes head boy Olav (C-1) to the end of his tether.

Island could be thought of as a Norwegian Lord of the Flies, except it is rather more complex than that. We can see the governor maintain what we might now call plausible deniability, rather than behave as a hissably nefarious villain. Likewise, Erling and Olav are far from paragons of virtue, but they are still engaging young protagonists who are quite believably pushed too far.

Indeed, Holst maintains an admirably firm hand on the rudder at all times. Though the events might suggest wider allegorical meaning, he keeps the film grounded in the characters’ reality. Likewise, he never lets matters degenerate into a reign of terror, in any sense, even when the Norwegian Navy arrives to put down the insurrection (which astonishingly, really did happen).

Though he risks becoming permanently typecast as the unjust authority figure, Stellan Skarsgård brings instant credibility to Island as the compromised governor. He clearly knows how to play the heavy, while maintaining a sense of the character’s humanity. Yet, it is the film’s two young more or less co-leads who really deliver the goods. As C-1 and C-19 respectively, Trond Nilssen and Benjamin Helstad are pretty darn intense and compulsively watchable.

A fine period production from stem to stern, Island will make suggestible viewers feel chilly and damp at times. Holst and screenwriter Dennis Magnusson also deserves further credit for not harping on the religious hypocrisy of the governor and his clueless board of directors. Instead, it seems they fully understood the dramatic potential of this remarkable historical episode and set about telling it rather straightforwardly and compellingly. Recommended beyond the established audience for foreign films, Island opens this Friday (11/18) in New York at the Cinema Village and the San Francisco Film Society will present it for a one week run in early January (1/6-1/12).