A Violent Man review – hardnut prison drama is guilty as charged

Craig Fairbrass (Villain, Muscle, Rise of the Footsoldier franchise) is an actor who may lack range but has an undeniable screen presence. He emits an almost radioactive glow with his hulking, jolie-laide physiognomy, amplified by an abraded, East End baritone that seldom rises above a menacing whisper. That charisma goes a long way in this prison drama, written and directed by Ross McCall, which consists of a weary procession of scenes in which Fairbrass’s longtime convict Steve Mackelson growls, glowers and recites monologues full of self-serious pauses about prison life and how hard he thinks he is.

All this seems to take place in one or two rooms in one of Her Majesty’s establishments where budget cuts appear to have deprived the cells of lightbulbs. A moderate amount of backlighting is supplied by a strip of window high in one black wall. No wonder the supporting officers (SOs) can never tell what’s going on. The deprivations also extend to the prisoners’ and support officers’ language, worn back to the stubs of self-expression so that they can only speak in prison slang (“tooled up”, “burner”, “peas” and the like) or the word “cunt”, which in this world is so ubiquitous it’s practically a pronoun.

The monotony gets broken up a little by a subplot about Steve’s cellmate Marcus (Stephen Odubola), a young man in for a seven-year stretch whom he begrudgingly protects from other criminals who are convinced he’s an informer. Meanwhile, Steve weighs up whether to accept a request to meet his daughter, who was only a little girl when he went away for killing her mother and her lover. Supporting performers Jason Flemyng and Ulrich Thomsen bring their angular cheekbones to the party to fill out the lineup of gaunt, dead-eyed men, while Rosie Sheehy is excellent in the climactic scene as Steve’s daughter. The over-forceful musical score won’t help viewers already straining to understand what the hell is going on, but the chthonic atmosphere is oddly mesmerising, perhaps because – like a prison sentence – it wears you down eventually.

• A Violent Man is released on 4 February in cinemas and on digital platforms.