Rating: ★★★½☆

The interplay between beautiful and sinister imagery defines much of Marius Holst’s haunting Norwegian prison drama King of Devil’s Island. The bleakly perplexing visage of a harpooned whale dying alongside the arrival of two boys into a brutal prison system generates a stirring metaphor that grows only stronger over the film’s course.

Based on the actual 1915 uprising of Norway’s Bastøy Island, we meet new inmates Erling (Benjamin Helstad) and Ivar (Magnus Langlete) as they are initiated by being paraded around naked in front of their fellow prisoners. It creates an antagonistic atmosphere from the outset, one neither governed nor reprimanded by the prison’s ambiguous director, Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgård). Violent confrontations are evidently endemic to the environment, no different from the majority of prisons worldwide. Disturbingly, those in positions of power, such as caretaker Brathen (Kristoffer Joner), order senior inmates to administer violent punishments to their subservient offenders.

Ivar is a nervous wreck, while Erling seems stronger and more capable, though cannot read. An apparently squeaky-clean inmate only a short time away from release, Olav (Trond Nilssen), takes pity, becoming torn between his own self-interest to escape this environment, and anger at the abuse he observes Ivar is especially being subjected to.

The kids certainly don’t take their often savage treatment lying down; glimpses of razor blades and toxic mushrooms provide hints at what might be to follow, as Erling plots an escape. The particulars of this plan are obscured from even the viewer, which keeps us guessing right along with the prison administrators. However, this is ultimately just a small part of the film; Holst jumps off to explore prison politics, and specifically the kids’ moral code, an honour system tacitly built when faced with nothing but cruelty from their adult supervisors. Nevertheless, those close to parole, like Olav, appreciate what they will tolerate and turn a blind eye to just to ensure their release, and dissent can jeopardise this.

Thus, a somewhat predictable spanner is thrown in the works just when hope seems to abound, but it incites violence that rouses righteous anger in the children, and perhaps also in us, too. The intensity in these later portions is unrelenting, with the snowy, minimalist setting helping to bring it to the forefront. The children’s reactionism helps draw the line between violence born out of power, and that dealt out of indignation, as well as righteous protest against senseless anarchy. The frozen-river sequence on which everything comes to a head is, needless to say, a real nail-biter.

Beautifully shot by John Andreas Andersen (Headhunters) – albeit retaining a somewhat overdone, washed-out look typical of the bleak, Nordic mid-winter – it is nevertheless the evocative young performances that drive the pic home. Despair, desperation and lost innocence are devastatingly conveyed by the three near-unknown leads, especially Nilssen, whose weary, winter-worn face evokes memories of Aleksey Kravchenko’s weathered-beyond-recognition countenance in Elem Klimov’s masterful Come and See. Skarsgård is meanwhile a wise choice for the passive-aggressive director, apparently capable of appearing even more menacing when speaking in native tongue. Suitably, his character’s motives remain unclear for most of the film, but he is far from the cardboard cutout slave driver you might expect.

Though the outlined premise is hardly original, it has life breathed into it by stellar performances across the board, and a chilly, imposing setting that Scandinavian filmmakers seem to fashion better than anyone else. King of Devil’s Island is a grim treatise on the origins of violence, with excellent performances from the largely unknown young cast.

King of Devil’s Island is on limited release from Friday.

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This article was first posted on June 28, 2012