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Nordic Cinema, Norwegian Cinema

King of Devil’s Island (Kongen av Bastøy, Norway/Pol/Ger/France 2010)

Stellan Skarsgard as the Governor of the home and Benjamin Helstad as Erling.

Stellan Skarsgård as the Governor of the home and Benjamin Helstad as Erling.

I missed this on release – I don’t think that Arrow made too much of an effort in 2012 when a DVD release was their prime objective and that’s a shame because this is a CinemaScope flick which would look very good on a big screen. I’m just grateful to BBC4 for showing it in its Saturday night slot usually reserved for noir crime fiction. It still looked good on a small screen. The English title is a typical marketing scam, depending on on Anglo viewers’ memories of Papillon and other films set on the notorious colonial prison in French Guiana. It’s not a very helpful title as this is about a brutal boys’ reformatory school on Bostoy island in the Oslo fjord in 1915. Based on a historical incident this was the second of the recent cycle of homegrown ‘blockbusters’ in Norway, following Max Manus and preceding Kon-Tiki. A blockbuster like this in Norway has a budget of around 50 million kroner (about £5.7 million) and attracts an audience of around 200,000.

Nordic films often need to be co-productions to raise the finance for a large scale production and this film has several co-production partners. It was mostly filmed in Estonia and its Swedish star, Stellan Skarsgård, never actually set foot in Norway on the shoot. VFX were also used to create a sense of historical and geographical accuracy. Skarsgård is a genuine star presence but in this case I think he is upstaged by the largely non-professional cast of boys and the two leading young actors, Benjamin Helstad as Erling and Trond Nilssen as Olav.

An attempt at escape from the island.

An attempt at escape from the island.

The film succeeds partly through spectacle with the CinemaScope frame used very effectively by cinematographer John Andreas Andersen to portray the bleak conditions on the island, especially in the final scenes during the winter. The story is familiar with a new ‘inmate’, Erling, arriving and being assigned to a dormitory in which Olav is the ‘trusty’ leader – a boy who has been in the home for many years and is only a few months away from release. Olav’s original crime was trivial but Erling has done something pretty serious. He also comes with a backstory – he has been on a whaling boat and experienced the death throes of a whale. The narrative develops with a conventional triangular structure. Erling and Olav have to develop a relationship in difficult circumstances, with a potential conflict between them in terms of fighting the authoritarian regime of the Governor and the dormitory ‘house master’, Braaten. This is one of those films that endlessly reminds the viewer of other titles. I thought at first that it would be like Scum and then wondered if it was becoming like if . . . .  Other commentators have referenced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Cool Hand Luke. I’m sure that Shawshank Redemption will be another touchstone for some. I think that it is more a ‘youth picture’ than a conventional ‘prison film’ and the narrative turns on the fate of another new boy who arrives with Erling, but who is less likely to survive. It’s also probably a mistake to look only at Anglo-American films for clues to category/genre.

Staying true to the historical incident, the film develops into a type of Nordic story that seemed recognisable to me from several key Swedish films with young and potentially romantic ‘rebel’ heroes hounded by repressive forces – I’m reminded of Bo Widerberg’s films such as The Ballad of Joe Hill. Erling and Olav are nor ‘political’ in any way, but they do represent heroic figures in the face of brutality and criminal behaviour by men in positions of authority, even if Skarsgård’s performance ‘humanises’ the Governor a little. The film won prizes in Norway and Sweden but bizarrely does not seem to have attracted audiences in either Sweden or Denmark, confirming the odd observation that Nordic films rarely travel to neighbouring countries. Audiences seem to go only for Hollywood or ‘national’ product. That’s a poor choice in this case. I don’t think Hollywood could make a film with the discipline shown by director Marius Holst here. I certainly recommend the film. The original institution on Bastoy is now a very progressive and seemingly successful prison where rehabilitation appears to be working.

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