Inducted with fellow offender Ivar (Magnus Langlete), Erling wastes no time in provoking the harsh school governor (Stellan Skarsgard) and coming into conflict with housemaster’s pet and dorm leader Olav (Trond Nilssen). When a teacher is caught sexually assaulting a pupil, however, order gives into chaos as the youths revolt.
Given the scale of the uprising and the infamy of the aftermath from which the film takes its name, it is truly surprising how unhurried director Marius Holst is to realise it onscreen. Instead, Holst conjects a series of stock characters and Bildungsroman clichés to pad out the interim and get full use of his doomed sets (gorgeous as they are) and landmark story. Epic in every sense of the word – from the stunning snowscapes to accomplished CGI – if there is one criticism of King of Devil’s Island it is that it fills its narrative with needless and inorganic deviations from the otherwise engaging core premise, dramatically diluting the story.
Another criticism – while we’re here – is the film’s choice of leading man. While the decision to cast newcomers and unknowns (even for Norway) in the role of the student body largely pays off, Helstad’s onscreen presence – reminiscent of a Norweigen Channing Tatum – unfortunately undercuts most of the drama with jarring effect. It’s a pity, especially when Erling is placed opposite the inspiring Olav, the imposing governor or Kristoffer Joner hateful pervert.
Cinematographer John Andreas Andersen makes the most of the Estonian landscape, standing in for Norway throughout the shoot, putting every penny (or ducat) of the not inconsiderable budget onscreen. The stark brutality of the governor’s rule is reflected in the barren landscape, the skeletal trees and white backdrop insulating the community from the rest of humanity – and indeed from humanity itself. Andersen’s otherwise understated mise-en-scène doesn’t truly flourish until the final reel, however, with the blazing buildings and dark-coated escape attempts framed to perfection.
Uneven to begin with but finally finding its feet in time for the stunning finale, King of Devil’s Island is an absolutely outstanding piece of cinema. Though not always entirely engrossing, it is a touching and deeply satisfying story of revolution which is unafraid to leave you with each smarting emotion far longer than you might be accustomed to.