This fact-inspired prison-uprising story doesn’t miss a trope: evil overlord; sexually perverted ‘keeper’ preying on weak prisoners; brutal inmates; bad food; smelly latrines for secret meetings; official beatings; fraudulent inspections; and a tough, charismatic newbie, in on a murder rap, who holds to a dream of freedom even as he takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. Damned if it doesn’t work all over again. The ‘prison,’ a real-life Norwegian Reform Facility for wayward teens, was built on an isolated island, and the ‘Juveys’ of 1915 look more like choirboys than bad seeds, which helps to freshen the material. Marius Holst keeps a cool hand on the helm, neither over-dramatizing each atrocity nor swamping everything with ominous music cues & sinister angles. Even that tinge of blue in the lighting scheme feels endemic to long, cold Norwegian nights, not just applied for effect. Stellan Skargård makes the Governor a conflicted man with a tragically malleable definition of decency. His very ‘reasonableness’ makes him scarier than the film’s outright villain. As the incorrigible rebel & natural leader, Benjamin Helstad, playing what you might call the Steve McQueen role, hasn’t the insolence or authority you expect. On the other hand, placing the leader more in the crowd brings out the ensemble nature of the story. And it does nothing to take away from the emotionally devastating ending which moves seamlessly into a beautifully designed, deeply moving coda.
DOUBLE-BILL: Jules Dassin’s BRUTE FORCE/’47, is like a grown up Classic Hollywood version of this.