Behold, another DVD review double-header! First up this time around is the British thriller G.B.H, directed by direct-to-DVD regular Simon Phillips (of). Centring on Damien (Nick Nevern) a former London toe-rag turned Copper trying to get his life on track, the film unfolds around 2011’s London Riots.
Phillips’ film attempts to show London as a city stretched to breaking point, full of crime and discontent as it builds its way towards the riots. Confusing title cards keep popping up saying things indicating how many weeks are left before the violence erupts. Unless you’ve worked out their purpose, it feels like the film keeps showing scenes out of chronological order and muddles the narrative. We see Damien trying to negotiate an almost double life – one side a typical lad who appears to have some of humanity’s worst mates, and the other a beat-walking policeman who observes (and keeps commenting on) society’s collapse.
One issue here is that Damien is massively unlikeable. While Nevern is a capable actor, a squinting, grimacing former hooligan who won’t even stick up for his girlfriend when is dreadful, leery pal (Peter Barrett) intimidates her doesn’t make for the most engaging protagonist. Presumably he’s supposed to appear complex; not your normal hero. He just seems like a bit of a dick.
Speaking of dicks, Damien’s aforementioned friends are, in fairness, impressively played. They’re slimy to the point that they practically leave a smear on your screen.
As the story boils towards the explosion of violence in the city through recycled overhead shots of The Gherkin and dimly lit grubby council estates, we can see that things aren’t going to end well for Damien. There is some reasonable tension building here as the film swerves into revenge-flick territory, but ultimately it is devoid of much intrigue or interest. Another one to add to the growing stack of Brit-gangster-hooligan-crime thrillers that all appear to star the same people who say things like ‘you muggy little caaaant’ a lot.
King of Devil’s Island may be similarly grim in tone, but has a lot more to offer. Set on the Norwegian prison island of Bastøy in 1915, it deals with the day-to-day lives of young offenders as Stellan Skarsgård’s Governor attempts to reform them.
Starring a largely young and excellent cast (the ‘reform school’ was for children and teenagers) the film zones in on Erling (Benjamin Helstad) a young sailor who appears to be guilty of murder. Spared adult prison, he is set to work on the island in order to reform into a ‘good Christian Norwegian boy’.
As is often the way with prison dramas, things don’t being well for Erling, who soon finds himself in trouble for fighting and lack of discipline. Billeting with ‘C barracks’ and taking on the name C19, he befriends Olav (Trond Nilssen), who has been on the island for six years.
The stark and hard-edged Norwegian landscape seems the perfect setting for a film such as this, the cool colour temperature really leaving a chilled impression. The boys look the part – their glazed eyes reflecting childhood’s lost. Some are more vulnerable than others; particularly newcomer Ivar (Magnus Langlete) who it appears may be being abused by one of the older male staff.
As the boys become increasingly aware and angry with this, tension starts to rise, and it becomes apparent that a small staff of old men is no match for an island of put-upon teenagers.
It’s no surprise that King of Devil’s Island takes its inspiration from the real life Bastøy uprising in 1915. The moments leading up to this event are largely on the shoulders of the young cast, who do a fantastic job balancing the roles of vulnerable kids and hardened, institutionalised workers. Helstad and Nilssen in particular are magnetic, with solid supporting work from Skarsgård.
If the film has one problem it’s that this is an oft-told story. It’s setting however allows for intrigue, especially given the history of Bastøy, and the performances give heart that burns through the freezing vistas the film presents.
G.B.H and King of Devil’s Island are out now.
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