Punishing Bodies: British Prison Film and the Spectacle of Masculinity

Dario Llinares

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Prison films are beset by a fundamental paradox. Because mainstream filmis reliant on a combination of the pleasure of the visual and the dramaticstructuring of narrative, institutionalised incarceration based on the loss ofliberty, extended temporal control and physical spatial restriction would seemto be fundamentally atodds with ‘the cinematic’. Prison as depicted on-screen istherefore aspace inwhich visibly enactedretribution isforegrounded in amodemuch more akin towhat Foucault calls thepre-modern ‘theatres of torture’. Theroutinised banality of day-to-day life behind bars is eschewed in favour of thespectacle of the masculine body punishing or being violently punished. Britishcinema is replete with films set in prison, however, as the first part of this articleexplores, and academic analyses of such films are formulated around threediscursive strands: debates around the constitution of the prison film as agenre,discussions of the potential relationship between cinematic representations andthe ‘real-world’ sociology of punishment, and assertions about how nationalidentity is reflected. The second part of this article deploys a comparativeanalysis of NicolasWinding Refn’s Bronson (2008) and Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), examining what is often taken for granted in previous work, namelyhow the environment of incarceration is produced as an aesthetic, social and even ontological space that contextualises and materialises a link between masculinity, violence and spectacle. I argue that the microcosm of the prison,on the one hand, reasserts the male body as the root of physical ‘being-ness’, yeton the other, reveals masculinity as a constructed performance determined bythe social context of incarceration and amplified through cinematic aesthetics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)207-228
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of British Cinema and Television
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2015


  • body
  • British cinema
  • genre
  • masculinity
  • prison films
  • spectacle
  • violence


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