If nothing else, King of Devil's Island is the kind of film that makes you thankful you live in the convenience century - the 21st century - with its iPads, Thermomixes, electric Lazyboy recliners and those sensor-controlled soap pumps you don't even have to touch.
There were no such pleasures in the early 20th century - circa 1915 - on the isolated, inhospitable island of Bastoy in Norway, where troubled boys aged 11 to 18 were sent to a remote reformatory centre. The real-life Bastoy Residential School operated for half a century on the Alcatraz-like island until a shocking incident shut it down, thankfully.
In this sobering adaptation of that true story, the windswept, snowbound "school" is run like a prison camp by a tyrannical warden (Stellan Skarsgard) who disciplines the lads with demanding and demeaning slave labour. It's like Stalag 17 Junior. A Gulag for little guys.
Though many are sent there for minor crimes, the warden wants to turn the lads into "honourable, noble, useful, Christian boys". Like most wardens, he lets his sadistic head guard do the dirty work. Here, the feared disciplinarian is Brathen (Kristoffer Joner), and he runs the camp with military precision and brutish oppression. No one dare step out of line. Literally.
On to the island comes surly 17-year-old Erling (Benjamin Helstad), who's rumoured to have committed murder. He immediately asserts his authority over the other boys and aims to become the first to escape.
Filmed in cold whites, greys and light blues, director Marius Holst sets up King of Devil's Island as a textbook prison thriller, with brutal guards, oppressed inmates, strict routines, a tough ringleader and a planned escape. There's barely a glimmer of hope, with the austere tone switching between grim and grimmer and the sullen emotion switching between glum and glummer.
Sadly, Holst fails to deviate from prison-film predictability, as Erling attempts to lead an uprising despite several violent setbacks. We also don't get very far inside the mind of captor or captive.
The glowering Erling barely speaks throughout the film, and it remains unclear whether the warden is really as nasty as he appears.
Despite a typically mordant performance from Skarsgard, he remains a sketchy, poorly written character.
Brathen is a much more loathsome brute, and the wiry, steely-eyed Joner plays him as the kind of quietly violent pedant who strikes fear into the boys' hearts.
I like the way Erling's arrival upsets the rigid order between the wards and their wardens, and the harsh setting is used evocatively and effectively. But Holst almost spoils it with repetitive and obvious allusions to a harpooned whale that just keeps swimming - a metaphor for the boys who soldier on.
I won't spoil the infamous incident, which occurs near the end of the film. But it is filmed in a way that will shock and outrage, and rightly so. <div class="endnote">