It's no surprise that this country, which was colonised/invaded by the British and legions of convicts to provide free labour, has a fascination with prison tales. The original Prisoner television series ran for eight seasons (once released in a 174-disc collector's edition, complete with a metal suitcase!), while the excellent remake, Wentworth, is currently filming its fourth season, proving that we still have a thirst for drama inside the boob. In terms of homegrown film on the subject, the results have been mixed
The first cinematic representation of Australian prison life was a 1908 silent film based on the Marcus Clarke novel For The Term of His Natural Life. A second short film based on the book was made in 1911, and in 1927 American director Norman Dawn shot a feature length version, which would turn out to be the most expensive silent film ever shot here. Using an almost entirely American cast, the film suffered at the box office from the release of 'talkies' the same year. More than half of the original film has since been lost, but a restoration was pieced together in 1981 and clips are still available over at the National Film and Sound Archive. The most modern retelling of this story can be found in the six hour, three-part 1983 telemovie, starring Colin Friels and Anthony Hopkins (aka Norman Bates from Psycho), which tacked-on a fairytale ending that was clearly at odds with the original novel, but was deemed necessary to keep TV viewers happy.
Bryan Brown's turn in 1980's Stir brings us slightly more up to date with his portrayal of life in Bathurst prison, the location of a major prison riot in 1974. Written by a former inmate, the script is well-balanced and manages to avoid the normal prison movie cliches and one-dimensional portrayals of the guards as blood-thirsty psychopaths. The following year, British director Claude Whatham released Hoodwinked, based on the true story of Australian inmate Carl Synnerdahl, who faked being blind to get a reduced sentence on a bank robbery charge. Most notable for being Geoffrey Rush's first major film role, it also snagged Judy Davis a Best Supporting Actress AFI award, although I'd offer anyone who can sit through the film's entire two hour and forty minute running time an award of some type, or at the very least some form of legal sedative. Shit got really real with Ghosts...of the Civil Dead in 1988, co-written and starring renowned musician Nick Cave. This bleak portrayal of the brutalities suffered by inmates of a privately-owned, maximum security prison in the middle of the desert. If you're looking for a disturbing, ultra-violent jail movie played out in a uniquely Australian way, this is for you.
Melbourne's infamous Pentridge prison, which has since closed and now houses residential apartments in Coburg, gets some shine for 1994's Everyday...everynight. Based on a play, it feels very 'stagey' in parts but thanks to being shot in black and white at the old Geelong Gaol, this story of the hardships that Christopher Dale Flannery endured in H-Block at the hands of violent screws has an authentic feel. The second contribution from the nineties was Life in 1996, which details the experiences of the men of T2, a HIV-positive prison block that reflects the paranoia and confusion surrounding AIDS at the time. This is a film less concerned with vicious beatings than with slow-paced character development and arty photography. Which, while it makes a change from your average prison flick, isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea.
While the aughties didn't produce any Aussie films entirely set in prison, both Chopper  and The Hard Word  spent a decent amount of time behind bars. The early scenes in the dramatised account of Mark Brandon 'Chopper' Read's life features dialogue which is nothing short of comedy gold, such as: 'Neck up you cunt, you're a parrot! Fuckin' blowfly...what'd you ever do that was good?' 'Well I bashed you. That was good, wasn't it?' The Hard Word's sections spent behind bars are a lot more light-hearted, in-line with the tone of this caper flick featuring Guy Pearce and Joel Edgerton which borrows heavily from the events of the Great Bookie Robbery in the mid-seventies.
Most recently, 2014 delivered three movies based around the experiences of incarcerated in individuals - Convict, about a soldier who goes to jail after returning from Iraq and getting into a fight which goes horribly wrong; Rise, based on the experiences of a young man wrongly convicted of date rape; and Hope, the tale of a lifer attempting to rebuild his life by helping injured birds of prey.
The key trait that separates the best of these films is the uniquely Australian sense of bone-dry humor that pervades them, regardless of how many violent atrocities and police baton rapings occur. They also tend to possess a downbeat, bleak realism lacking in the likes of The Shawshank Redemption, a quality that makes Wentworth far more compelling than Orange Is The New Black. Might be time to save up for the Prisoner box set after all...