King of Devil’s Island Review

Reform school brutality, Norwegian style.

Let’s call it the Killing effect: keen to tap into the television success of various Scandinavian imports (Wallander, The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge), distributors have been eagerly snapping up big screen Nordic ventures of late in the hope of replicating their ratings at the box office. In some cases the opportunism has been immediate, as with Chelsea Film’s picking up the distinctly average ID:A, for example; a film that would never have seen the light of day in the UK otherwise. In others it’s been a tad more understandable. Headhunters, released into British cinemas this April, had the name of bestselling author Jo Nesbø to add to its advertising clout, whilst Metrodome are to be applauded for looking a little further afield and bringing Danish historical drama A Royal Affair to our attention. Arrow – who have been responsible for the British DVDs and Blu-rays of The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge – also look to be on the right track. They’ve recently had standout Swedish thriller Jägarna (a massive domestic hit in its native Sweden with the additional bonus of having the original Wallander, Rolf Lassgård, in its lead role) classified by the BBFC for future release, plus we have the film at hand, King of Devil’s Island, another key domestic success. Released in Norway during the Christmas of 2010, it went on to secure eight nominations at the Amanda Awards (the country’s major home-grown film prize), eventually picking up three including Best Picture.

King of Devil’s Island is based on true events and takes place during the winter of 1915. Its setting is Bastøy Island which, between the years of 1900 and 1970, was home to a reform school for boys. (Nowadays it plays host to Bastøy Prison, one of the most liberal and progressive institutions in the world.) The film concerns itself with an uprising which resulted in military intervention or rather the circumstances leading up to it. We begin, as these tales so often do, with the arrival of a new inmate. Through his eyes we get to witness the harsh conditions which Bastøy provided: not only the isolation and the intense chill of that winter, but also the brutality of the regime. Chief villain, or so it seems, is Kristoffer Joner’s ‘housefather’, a man who enjoys doling out the violence as well as taking a sexual interest in one of his young charges. However, when the molestation charges are raised with Stellan Skarsgård’s Governor, it soon becomes clear that the institutional blind eye is just as sinister.

Despite the factual basis there’s little here that we haven’t seen elsewhere. The British Borstal of Scum, the Swedish boarding school of Mikael Håfström’s Evil and the US juvenile detention centre of Bad Boys (the 1983 film with Sean Penn, not the feature debut of Michael Bay) also revealed similar systems of extreme discipline and brutality. Admittedly, King of Devil’s Island has aspects of the prison break movie to add to the mix – unsuccessful escape attempts giving added fuel to the impending uprising – but again these are hardly an endangered genre. Indeed, the only real novelty comes from the Norwegian setting, which looks suitably harsh and oppressive within its widescreen frame. Yet whilst we can praise the photography or, for that matter, the performances (Joner deservedly picked up an Amanda for Best Supporting Actor) or director Marius Holst’s overall handling of the film, such things can only go so far. There’s nothing bad about King of Devil’s Island, but there’s very little that could be labelled as fresh.


Arrow are releasing King of Devil’s Island as separate DVD and Blu-ray editions. A DVD was provided for review purposes and so it is this edition considered below.

Unfortunately light on extras – just a trailer to back up the main feature – the film does at least get a fine presentation. Retaining the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio (anamorphically enhanced), King of Devil’s Island looks as sharp and spotless as you would hope for from such a recent production. The disc ably handles the blue-heavy palette of cinematographer John Andreas Andersen. Blacks are solid, artefacts are non-existent and detail sufficiently impressive. No doubt the Blu-ray is all of this and more, but those with DVD-only capabilities shouldn’t come away disappointed. As for the soundtrack, here we find a DD5.1 mix that’s similarly issue-free and comes with accompanying optional English subtitles. A shame about the lack of additions, but at least the film itself is done justice.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Nov 11, 2012

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