Screens at CIFF: 10/7 & 10/14
World premiere: 17 December, 2010, Norway

In 1915, the inmates of the Bastøy Prison on Bastøy Island, many miles off the Norwegian coast, rose against their captors and held the prison for some time, until the military was brought and restored order, in the unthinkably violent way that such situations usually resolve themselves. As subjects for movies go, this is not a terrifically original one, though the fact that the historic event is one of the bloodiest moments in 20th Century Norwegian history at least points us to why it might have a little more merit than this your average Hollywood prison picture.

But there's one other detail: Bastøy Prison, at the time of the uprising, was a boys' prison, meaning that all of those rebellious prisoners were between 11 and 18 years of age, and more pointedly, that the victims of the Norwegian Army's bullets were between 11 and 18 years of age. And now we have something that actually sounds like a movie: an incredibly sober and dark and depressing movie, but a movie.

Sure enough King of Devil's Island (which is not, incidentally, the correct translation of the island's name) is very sober, very dark, and very depressing, to an almost comical degree. From pretty much the moment it begins, director Marius Holst and cinematographer John Andreas Andersen coat everything in a thick sheen of glacial blues that make certain we're extremely aware of how unforgivingly chilly and wicked is the desolate island, and how unsmiling and institutional is the prison, led by Stellan Skarsgård in the role of the prison superintendent, and if there's one actor you can trust to alternate between strained humanism and icy implacability whenever you need him to, it's Stellan Skarsgård.

The plot coheres very slowly: one of the new inmates, officially called C19 (the 19th resident of C Block), but known to those who care about him as Erling (Benjamin Helstad), has come to Bostøy pre-loaded with a scheme to escape; he fails in this attempt. But in the process of insinuating himself into the prison before failing, he learns a good deal about what goes on there, and in particular finds out a secret of the second-in-command, Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner), and what he does with that information triggers a tragedy which in turn so angers the inmates that Erling is able to lead them in a revolt against their unsuspecting guards - for Bostøy is run according to the principals that if you grind the spirit out of your prisoners well enough, there's no real need to worry about them escaping, and so for a precious short time the boys are able to enjoy the freedom of a bitter Scandinavian winter.

Obviously, this is a serious and gloomy subject, and it deserves better than a wacky, serio-comic treatment (and boy oh boy, is it ever easy to imagine an American film on roughly the same topic being turned into an action-comedy, probably starring Nick Jonas in his stab at being a serious actor), so the fact that Holst's treatment of the material is so mercilessly spare is of course reasonable. On the other hand, too much seriousness can become suffocating, and between the lacerating cinematography and Johan Söderqvist's deep dark score and the rotted production design by Janusz Sosnowski, King of Devil's Island finds itself in desperate need of any kind of release: for far too much of the first 90 minutes, it is brutal and miserable for the sole sake of convincing you, "isn't this all so damn brutal and miserable?" and not because it is in any real way enlightening.

What saves the film is the uprising itself and the violent reprisals, and it's not that the film stops being brutal - if anything, it gets even nastier. But now, finally, the nastiness seems to add up to something. It is a shockingly loud and confusing sequence, full of hectic movement, and it makes the film visceral to a degree that it simply had not attained to that point. It makes all the difference between a film that is merely depressing, and a film that is shocked and furious and agitated by the evil that men do.

There are, I'll concede, scraps of that throughout the rest of the movie: in particular, Skarsgård's performance is a godsend, turning the superintendent into a man who genuinely thinks that he cares about his inmates' well-being, but is so entrenched in his job and his power that he makes not even the smallest attempt to change things for the better. It is probably the case that in the script, the interactions among the students were evocative in their own way of the way that people fracture under strain and imprisonment, becoming the worst version of themselves; some of that even slips out into the movie proper, although the generally anonymous performances of the young actors work against any such thematic development, making it hard to think of the prisoners as a mixture of clashing personalities, and more a backdrop against which, occasionally, these two figures or those two figures will come forward and represent The Breakdown of Civility in one or another of its guises.

It's not a bad film by any means: just an awfully self-serious film, one that ends well enough that I have a good impression of it and starts slow enough that I'd be hard-pressed to ever recommend it to another soul. It won the Amanda Award, the top film prize in Norway; proving, maybe, that the tendency for prizes to go to movies that announce their importance rather than movies that simply are important transcends national boundaries.