Marius Holst’s film is initially impressive because it is based on true events that occurred at Bastøy Prison in Norway yet feels wholly cinematic and not at all like a docudrama. He attempts to build up tension by testing the boys’ patience again and again until it breaks. C19 sticks out from the crowd because he reacts against the brutal regime, headed by Stellan Skarsgård, in ways that the other boys and guards never thought possible before. His failed escape effort midway through the film actually works to his advantage because it makes the Governor more afraid of him and awakens the other prisoners to their unequal standing on the island.
Skarsgård, so fantastic in A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010) from the same year as this, does some good work in a supporting role and really does seem to act better in his native tongue than when he makes numerous trips to Hollywood. Benjamin Helstad is also solid in the lead role of C19, yet his burgeoning friendship with fellow inmate C1 didn’t come across very well and I almost feel as though it would have worked better if C19 had been a sort of anti-hero, leading the others towards their rebellion but having little connection to them beyond that.
When the inevitable uprising takes place the film steps up a gear and starts to become a gripping thriller as it races towards the ending. I had mixed feelings about the echoes of Titanic (1997) that seemed to haunt the filmmakers when they were deciding how to end the story but that certainly didn’t diminish the enthralling final scenes between the oppressed prisoners and their oppressors. Wasn’t as keen on a subplot involving one of the guards being accused of mistreating a boy, especially because the way it was resolved made it seem irrelevant to everything else.