King of Devil’s Island (Kongen Av Bastøy), 115 mins, rated M opens 3 May 2012


(This is my review as published in The NSW Law Society Journal, May 2012 issue).

A voice tells us of a hunt for a whale. The whale has been harpooned, but, the voice says, it takes a whole day to die. Now we’re on the water, and ravishing cinematography reveals a boat taking two boys to an island.

It’s Norway in 1915, and the island is not Devil’s Island, but Bastøy Island, off the fjord of Oslo. It’s the location of Bastøy Residential School, an institution for “maladjusted young boys” which operated from 1900-1953. The two boys, teenagers, have been sent there for reasons we are not really told, and at first we only know them by numbers: C5 and C19.

Life is tough on Bastøy. Although it is called a “school”, the boys seem to spend most of their time doing hard manual labour, in freezing winter conditions, underdressed and underfed. The school’s Board, and its Governor, played by celebrated Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2011, Breaking the Waves, 1996), believe that hard work and tough discipline will convert these wayward boys into well-adjusted Christian citizens.

We’ve seen this kind of story on film before. We’ve seen it in The Magdalene Sisters, (reviewed in the Law Society Journal in April 2003), and in Oranges and Sunshine (reviewed in June 2011), but it still has the power to shock. Like those films, King of Devil’s Island is based on a true story. And once again, we have adults mistreating children in the name of religion, the State, or just “for their own good”. This time, instead of Ireland or Australia, it’s Norway’s turn to face up to the shame of its past.

One of the boys in the film – we later learn his name is Erling – is a big strapping lad who has worked on a whaling ship, and it’s rumoured that he’s doing time for murder. He’s volatile, and it’s clear that he won’t submit meekly to authority. But he’s also a loner. The other boy, Ivar, is weaker, frightened, and one of the staff notices his vulnerability. He’s ripe for the taking…

Although the story is familiar, there are several crucial differences here. First there is the setting and the direction: the wintry island is filmed in shades of blue and gray – a strange, but bleakly beautiful world. And the direction, by Norwegian Marius Holst, is leisurely but firm. He reveals the workings of this cruel world gradually, moving from the perspective of the first two boys to that of the Governor, and then to that of another boy, Olav. Olav has been given a degree of responsibility, and he expects to be released very soon, after having spent much of his life incarcerated in this “school”.

While this style of storytelling means that we’re not always sure where the film is going, it also prevents it from being too predictable. And unless you know the true story, you will never guess its climax, which comes (literally) out of the mist.

The most impressive thing about this film is its pure poetry. First we have the central metaphor of the whale, repeatedly harpooned, yet struggling gamely against its fate until death a day later. Then we have the letters that the illiterate Erling dictates to his friend Olav, using the extended metaphor of a voyage by ship to conceal his incarceration and the horrific punishments he suffers. And lastly we have the moral dilemma, exquisitely posed. Olav has been given a position of trust, and is expected to function as a leader in order to complete his transformation into an upright, Christian citizen. Should he use his leadership to stand up for what is right, even if it means rebelling against the very system he is supposed to uphold?

These days, Bastøy is still a prison, but now it aims to become "the first ecological prison in the world”. Apparently inmates work on the prison farm, but in their spare time they can ride horses, fish, play tennis and do cross-country skiing. Erling, the one-time King of Devil’s Island, would be astonished.