Prisoner, review: prison dramas are old hat, but trust the Danes to keep us gripped

Sofie Gråbøl stars in Prisoner
Sofie Gråbøl stars in Prisoner - BBC

The title music for Prisoner, a new six-part Danish series from the production company behind The Killing and The Bridge, sounds like a ticking clock. You can see why they chose it: this is a timebomb of a drama, one set in a prison that wires together the incendiary elements of race, gangs, compromised guards, home troubles and chronic understaffing… and then lights a long fuse. There is an agonising inevitability as things go from really bad to a whole lot worse. If you can recall the way The Killing managed to remain as taut as a bow string over a massive 20 hours, then you’ll know that the Danes are experts at dramatic tension. Then they are able to maintain it way past any normal person’s breaking point.

Prisoner suffers, as TV series sometimes do, through bad timing: if you’ve seen Jimmy McGovern’s Time, particularly the first series from 2021 in which Stephen Graham’s right-minded prison guard was compromised by inmates who discovered that his son was in another prison, then you’ll recognise a good chunk of the plot. The same thing happens to Sofie Gråbøl’s Miriam in Prisoner, and the beats by which a good person is sucked into a bad world – and thus becomes a prisoner themselves – are familiar.

Likewise, the four main prison guards who we follow – Miriam, Sammi (Youssef Wayne Hvidtfeldt), Hendrik (the wonderful David Dencik, recently seen in The Ipcress File) and Gert (Charlotte Fich) – all have to shoulder plots that can seem forced at the outset. Sammi, new on the job, happens to meet a childhood friend who’s now in prison, and gets him to turn informer; Hendrik falls in love with a prisoner; Gert, who runs the clink, has the inspectors on her back and needs 
to go from soft touch to zero tolerance if the “Big House” is to stay open.

Yet if the materials of Prisoner are commonplace then here they are crafted into something that is not. Superbly shot and with sensational performances throughout, Prisoner is gut-punch drama. The only thing that might stop you from blasting through the whole six hours in a sitting will be the fact that it is utterly unrelenting – but then you don’t head to chokey for oranges and sunshine.

Violence being inevitable doesn’t make it any less troubling, of course, but Prisoner plays as much on the prospect of violence as it does on the actuality. It is a nosedive into the very worst of all of us, one that takes Nordic Noir to an even bleaker, blacker place.