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Prisoner, BBC Four review - jailhouse rocked by drugs, violence and racism | reviews, news & interviews

Prisoner, BBC Four review - jailhouse rocked by drugs, violence and racism

Prisoner, BBC Four review - jailhouse rocked by drugs, violence and racism

Sofie Gråbøl joins a powerful cast in bruising Danish drama

Trouble in the House: Sofie Gråbøl as Miriam

The notion of prison as a pressure cooker of human behaviour and emotions is hardly a new one, but it can provide formidable fuel for drama. It does so here in this ferociously gripping Danish series, which hails from the same production company as The Killing and The Bridge.

It also boasts a forceful roster of acting talent, not least Sofie Gråbøl (aka Sarah Lund from The Killing) and David Dencik (from Chernobyl and McMafia, among other things).

Both of them play prison guards at an establishment known as the House ("Huset" in Danish), where they and their fellow-warders are enmeshed in a permanent struggle to maintain control of a population in a permanent state of seething resentment and incipient violence. Gråbøl plays Miriam, mother of a wayward son trying to kick a crippling drug habit, while Dencik’s Henrik gives the impression of being in control, but he’s teetering on the edge both personally and professionally (pictured below, Youssef Wayne Hvidtfeldt and Gustave Giese).

The backdrop to the story might seem curiously familiar to British viewers reeling from the endless bombardment of bad news about the collapse of various major institutions in the UK (Prisoner is also likely to trigger flashbacks to Jimmy McGovern’s BBC drama, Time). The Danish prison system depicted here seems equally dysfunctional, being understaffed and under-resourced and plagued by violence, rampant drug abuse and racial antagonism. The white prisoners, who all look like members of a biker gang, football hooligans or white supremacists, face off against a large and well organised Muslim contingent, whose members they tend to address contemptuously as “kebab” or “Taliban”.

In charge of the prison is Gert (Charlotte Fich), who’s trying to chivvy her staff into a superhuman display of control and efficiency because the political authorities are looking for a prison to close down to save money. It’s either going to be this one or another establishment called Ringe. Thus, Gert and her team are trying to convey the impression that they’re in charge of events while they’re under the constant scrutiny of a pair of government inspectors. But it’s a herculean task, since the warders have long since accepted that the only way to keep the place from going up in flames is to turn a blind eye to most of the contraband substances and criminal rackets going on under their noses. The prison is more like a barely-contained explosion than a house of correction.

All of this comes a shock to Sammi (Youssef Wayne Hvidtfeldt). An intense, driven young man, he joined the prison service because he “wanted to make a difference”, so he can’t understand why veteran warder Henrik tells him to make sure he rattles his keys to warn the inmates that he’s approaching, so they can hide the swag before he gets there.

The tensions and conflicts spread way beyond the prison walls, and the prison itself becomes a kind of metaphor for sickness and dysfunction. When Miriam tries to help her son by paying off his debt to his drug dealer, Khaled (Haesam Jakir), she finds herself being ruthlessly manipulated by the criminals. When Henrik (pictured above right with Daniel Flamgaard as Tommy) gets involved in a relationship with an inmate, he too finds himself compromised both privately and professionally. Meanwhile Sammi’s history with the prisoner Benji (Gustave Giese) sets in motion another chain of events heading inexorably for disastrous consequences.

This is hard-hitting stuff, and makes for some painful and depressing viewing. But once you’ve started you’ll find it difficult to stop.

  • Episodes 5 & 6 of Prisoner are on BBC Four on Saturday 9 March. The  complete series is available on BBC iPlayer

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