It seems that Danish producers excel in delivering unrefined portrayals of life in prison. Back in 2010, directors Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noor entered the international filmmaking scene with their feature debut, R, an anthropological examination of the Danish correctional system and a raw depiction of what it means to be incarcerated. Lindholm's approach careened towards pure realism with some critics even arguing that the film possessed a touch of hyperrealism. 13 years later, Noor co-created a new TV show under the title Huset (Prisoner), a production that attracted the attention of Nordic fiction aficionados as it promised to be something more than R. And it truly is. While I sincerely didn't think that it was impossible to outstrip the brutal violence of the 2010 film, Huset comes to stretch the set boundaries in the name of verisimilitude. The show explores the most obscure corners of the protagonists' psyches and the prison confinement functions as a symbol for the lives of both the inmates and the guards. Casting heavy-hitters as leads such as David Dencik and the always immaculate Sofie Gråbøl, the creators launch a harsh critique against the current reformatory system in Denmark, though the points made apply to the majority of contemporary Western societies.
The series focuses on the lives of a handful of prison wardens working in a correctional facility that faces critical challenges as, apart from the perpetual problems of understaffing and overcrowding, the Danish government's officials are thinking of shutting down the penitentiary due to a narrow budget. For its better part, Huset is set within the prison walls, a place which was a real prison until 2017 (Vridsløselille State Prison), but it also attempts to shed light on the personal lives of some of the guards, with Miriam (S. Gråbøl) and Henrik (D. Dencik) remaining on the center line throughout the six one-hour episodes. Miriam wants to bail out her addicted son who owes an exorbitant amount of money to some rough-looking thugs while Henrik struggles to balance the professional and the personal and help his family to overcome cutting problems. The personalities of Miriam and Henrik are divergent with the former adopting a more humane, caring attitude toward the inmates but everything turns upside down when she becomes embroiled in his son's shady dealings. Henrik is a shining example of middle-aged disillusionment playing the game and treating the prisoners as puppets or, even worse, trash that deserves to be tortured. The third protagonist is Samir (Youssef Wayne Hvidtfeldt), the newcomer warden. Samir is an idealist and wants to make a change, cutting no slack to the inmates and defying the unstated pact between the guards and the prisoners. This attitude will instantly set him on a collision course with both his colleagues and the criminals.
The violence in Huset is explicit and brutish with the creative team of the production emphasizing a naturalistic depiction of extreme acts of bestiality. There were many times that I contemplated stopping watching due to the atrocities featured onscreen. Perhaps the most disturbing one can be found in the fifth episode; Miriam enters a young inmate's cell for inspection and finds him lying in bed in a semi-comatose state. As she pulls the blanket covering him, she sees that his underwear is soaked in blood, the result of a vicious rape. I had to pause and felt like taking a shower after watching that scene but eventually, I got over it and continued until the final climax, a frenetic rampage that seals the fates of the protagonists. Huset is far from being another typical prison drama and the screenwriting team did a terrific job, crafting plausible characters and dialogue that rings true to the viewer's ears. However, certain plot points come across as rather farfetched, the majority of them concerning some dubious decisions on behalf of the main characters. The production's main strengths concern the flawless performances by the lead members of the cast, the sharp dialogue, and, above all, the claustrophobic tone that makes the viewer feel boxed in, a prisoner himself. Prison is the all-encompassing emblem of the show as it not only applies to life in prison but also to the walls that the protagonists build around themselves to armor against a frustrating, cruel reality.
This is not a show that I would recommend to just anyone as it contains extremely graphic violence that many can't stomach. However, those who are tired with the generic sub-genre of prison drama are bound to appreciate the frankness of the creator's intentions.