PLOT: In early 20th century Norway, the inmates of a prison for juvenile delinquents, revolt against their brutal jailers. Based on a true story.
REVIEW: In addition to being an internationally renowned festival for genre films, Fantasia also has a long history of promoting serious foreign fare, regardless of whether itís genre or not. Recent examples include the dark Danish comedy ADAMíS APPLES, and the two-part French action-extravaganza, MESRINE. This yearís high-brow addition to the schedule seems to be Marius Holstís KING OF DEVILíS ISLAND; a sombre, fact-based drama revealing a dark chapter from Norwayís history.
Most of the prisoners housed on this island reformatory are there for minor offenses. One of the more senior prisoners, a boy named Brathen (Kristoffer Joner), has been there for six years after pinching some change from a church collections box. In his time, he becomes something of a trustee, with his hope being that the prisonís administrator (Stellan Skarsgard) will finally recommend his release. Wanting to get through his last few weeks as quietly as he can, his life is turned upside down by the arrival of a hard-core offender named Erling (Benjamin Helstad). An older boy, Erling is there for murder, and his anti-authoritarian streak immediately puts him at odds with Skarsgardís lazy, corrupt warden.
Despite his hard-core past, Erlingís actually something of a hero, with him defending a weak fellow inmate, and opening Brathenís eyes to the despicable nature of some of the guards- the worst of the lot being a pedophile targeting the weaker inmates.
While Stellan Skargard is without a doubt the only actor featured in KING OF DEVILíS ISLAND that will be known to a North American audience, heís certainly not the lead here- despite his billing. He gets a fair amount of screen time as the warden, who, despite embezzling funds meant to improve the facilities and turning a blind eye to the offenses of his guards, is not portrayed as a two-dimensional monster. Rather, heís a bureaucrat simply trying to get through his stay on the island without making any waves- while simultaneously trying to keep his marriage to a beautiful young socialite together until moving to another post. Skarsgaard is brilliant as always, but again- this is not his movie.
Rather, it belongs to Joner and Helstad as the main prisoners. Both are terrific, and effortlessly carry the weight of an extremely dark and heavy piece of drama. While initially, Helstad as the rebellious Erling is the hero, the focus of the film gradually shifts to the more even-tempered Brathen, who, over the course of the film learns what it truly means to be selfless.
While certainly not a light watch, (the Fantasia audience was uncommonly quiet throughout) KING OF DEVILíS ISLAND truly is a fine piece of cinema, and it wouldnít surprise me a bit to see it join the best foreign film race at next yearís Oscars. Everything about it screams quality, from the great performances, to the gorgeous location photography of the prison- located near the fjords of Norway, to the richly effective score by Suzanne Bier regular, Johan SŲderqvist. While itís certainly not a genre film, despite the Fantasia Fest debut, itís nevertheless an excellent film, and a must see for anyone who appreciates truly stirring drama.