King of Devil's Island review

It would something of an understatement to say that Skarsgard doesn't always involve himself in the most upbeat of projects. Sure, we all had a nice singalong in Mamma Mia – but remember Dogville? Christ, I've never been able to look at Nicole Kidman in the same way since.

Well, it's back to bleak with King of Devil's Island, a tale about juvenile 'criminals' in the island correctional camp of Bastoy in the 1940s, who rise up against the institutional cruelty of their captors, with dire consequences. When new inmate Erling (C19) arrives, he's branded as a troublemaker almost immediately – rumours about the violent nature of his crime on the mainland have been circling round the other boys, and he does little to quell this reputation. He wants out, and he's made up his mind to escape as soon as he can – though this has never been done before with success, and the tales of what happened to those who tried do not bode well. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with the governor's 'pet', Olav (C1) – a relationship which begins grudgingly, based on mutual necessity, but by the end has become one of real respect, affection, and dependence. The culmination of the journey that these two characters go on together is nothing short of devastating. Helstad and Nilssen give immense performances, compelling to watch, crafting between them a heart-breaking portrayal of two boys whose bond is made all the stronger by the desperation of their circumstances and the brittleness of their hopes for the future.    

Skarsgaard plays the governor, an upright man of self-proclaimed high morals, who sees the extreme discipline enacted on the inmates as a genuine path to making them better citizens. He appears pure-hearted at first, ignorant of the violence and abuse being carried out in the name of 'betterment' – but as the film progresses this benevolent image starts to crack, and we see the petty man beneath the mask, turning a blind eye while it's convenient and too cowardly to take a stand when it becomes too late. Skaarsgard is on masterful tight-lipped form, all terseness and repression, showing us a man whose god-complex masquerades as gentleness. The real star of the show, however, is Kristoffer Joner, who plays the seedy stalking predatory figure of the Governor's right-hand man. Rarely is such cruelty depicted onscreen with such a tender sense of brokenness and malice combined that makes you almost pity him, but renders him ultimately irredeemable.

The Norwegian landscape lends itself well to the utter brutality of the conditions and the hopelessness of all the boys' situation. The cinematography is both bleak and eerily beautiful. The unyielding harshness of their imprisonment and the work they are forced to endure is never far from our ears, either – the tactile, grating, gruelling sounds throughout are always present. There is an excellent building of tension, right up to the horrific finale – for all the inference offscreen, very little violence is shown until quite late, making it all the more impacting when it finally erupts in front of us.   

This is an understated work of real power, driving steadily to a devastating end. As with the best stories, in your heart you somehow know the end, or at least a part of it, from the start – but all the way through, to the moment when it happens (and even when it does), you are begging it to be otherwise. King of Devil's Island is, undoubtedly, a gruelling watch – and a bit too long at two heavy hours – but if you're up to the task, it's thoroughly worthwhile.

• King of Devil's Island at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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