It has taken over a year for the Norwegian drama King of Devil’s Island to reach Australia, but arriving in the shadow of Hunger Games and the ongoing revelations about sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church, its timing is pertinent. The film is based on a true story about events that took place in 1915, on the remote Bastøy Island reform colony for young male offenders. The film presents Bastøy as a place designed to rehabilitate at-risk youths through intense discipline, hard labour and corporal punishment. Governor Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgård) likens the colony to a ship where following orders, working for the common good and respecting the chain of command will result in good Christian men. The reality of what happens at Bastøy is presented quite differently as the colony is more a place of institutionalised dehumanisation. Like the Hunger Gamesit is a film about children and teenagers who suffer at the hands of adults through institutions that supposedly have legitimacy and a place in society.
The film opens with the hardened older boy Erling (Benjamin Helstad) and the fragile Ivar (Magnus Langlete) arriving at the island as new residents/inmates. Almost immediately they are stripped of their identity as they are assigned numbers, made to surrender personal items, instructed not to discuss their backgrounds and given new clothes and a buzz cut. The sequence immediately evokes war films such as Full Metal Jacket and prison films where the sense of self is dismantled in order to theoretically reprogram the person into something else. Tough and headstrong Erling befriends Olav (Trond Nilssen), a boy who has been on the island for six years and has been given responsibilities and the promise of an upcoming release as his reward for being so obedient. Erling believes Olav has been institutionalised, Olav is concerned that Erling’s determination to escape is not only foolhardy but will jeopardise the order of the colony and therefore his reprieve.
Like the sympathetic characters in The Hunger Games, the characters in King of Devil’s Island gravitate towards supporting each other despite moments of antagonism. This camaraderie suggests a natural inclination towards solidarity in the face of oppression, which is markedly different from the type of social cohesion imagined by the Governor, which is based on fear of reprimand and exclusion. While the Governor attempts to present Erling as the disruptive element that is undermining the colony, it is in fact a member of his own staff, Housefather Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner) whose horrific abuse of power is doing the most damage. This dynamic reflects upon all levels of society where the ruling class attempts to scapegoat marginalised and powerless groups in order to blame them for situations that are the result of corruption, incompetence or neglect at the top. Instead of taking responsibility for poor social policy, it is easier to blame people voicing their opposition.
Throughout the film a story about a harpooned whale that doesn’t give up is continually told. Erling relates the story as if the whale is a metaphor for the authority behind Bastøy since no matter what he does to strike out at them, they keep on going. However, it is made clear visually throughout the film that the whale is really a metaphor for Erling who keeps fighting no matter what indignities and punishments he suffers. Erling may be the film’s protagonist, but the main themes of the film play out through the secondary character of Olav. Olav goes through the biggest character arc in the film, beginning as the type of person who believes that playing by the rules will eventually result in a reward. His change in attitude raises the issue of what does it take to make somebody finally rebel and attempt to destroy the system they previously lived by. Curiously the instigating incident is not a personal slight nor is it outrage over the tragic act that occurs during the film. Instead, it is the calculated attempt to cover up this act that makes Olav loose his faith in a system he believed was just and fair, despite being harsh.
King of Devil’s Island is a master class in how to present potentially confronting and upsetting subject matter in a restrained way. Abuse and violence are prominent in the film, but at no point does it revel is such acts. The most destructive actions, which drive the narrative development, are almost only implied and never actually seen. This is an impressive approach considering how too easy it is for cinema to fuel outrage by graphically depicting atrocities. It helps that the performances are also so strong from the experienced adult actors to the emerging young actors. The end result is a compelling story of defiance after hypocrisy transforms discipline and order into oppression and brutality. It’s a measured study of the nature of social control and how much a ruling group can inflict on another group before they rise up. The tensions that play out in King of Devil’s Island are about when it is best to fall in line and when it is time to challenge the system. The film suggests that no matter how powerful and influential an organisation or institution is, even its more loyal followers would rise up against it in light of it covering up horrific abuse and protecting the abusers. That’s what would happen today, right?