King of Devil’s
Island (Kongen Av Bastøy), 115 mins, rated M opens 3 May
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
(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
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
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.