Director: David MacKenzie
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend, Sam Spruell, David Ajala, Sian Breckin
Written by: Jonathan Asser
Running Time: 106 mins
Release date: 21st March 2014
Prison dramas are a genre on their own. Usually filled with clichés and stereotypes, there seem to be more bad ones than good. In fact, you could probably count the good ones on one hand. Well there’s now got to be room for one more, because Starred Up, a new British prison drama, is good. Very good. In fact, I would go so far to say, this is the 21st Century equivalent of Scum.
Eric Love is a very troubled young man. Proned to extreme acts of violence, he is “starred up” a young offender moved to a full prison in order to try to curb is angry ways. This doesn’t seem to scare the young man and he soon becomes the target of other inmates while he tries to stamp his authority within the confines. He does find two men who are willing to protect him and be on his side: a volunteer who runs an anger management group, and his own father, an inmate himself, who wants to protect his son from the dangers within. Soon jealousy and embitterment rise as well as some secrets.
First things first, Starred Up doesn’t hold any punches. This is as raw as you can get. There’s no “pleases” and “thank yous” here. The language is as tough as the sudden outbursts of violence that litter the film. Although I was very surprised as how little violence there really was. Director David Mackenzie and writer Jonathan Assen, have tried to capture the real sense of menace and dread that you find within the walls of modern-day prisons. This helps keep the tension throughout. You never know when things are going to flare up.
Clichés and stereotypes do occasionally appear but kudos to both Mackenzie and Assen for keeping the most obvious ones at bay, instead adding moments of surprising humour and a total sense of realism. The lines never feel forced or unreal. Even with the barrage of C-words and F-words, it isn’t there for shock purposes. This is how inmates speak.
It also has plenty of depth which is something else you wouldn’t normally find within a prison drama. We have the father/son relationship which isn’t about an elderly man taking the young Turk under his wing, this is a father looking out for his son and the son not reciprocating. Among those moments are some unexpected twists and plot developments that work and keep the attention.
The performances from the mostly unknown cast are superb, bringing a feeling of authentication that you often lose when played out by “actors” who are professionally trained. Rupert Friend is nicely nervous as the volunteer who can see the good in everyone, while Ben Mendlesohn has that sense of menace about him. Playing Eric’s father, Neville, is commands the screen whenever he appears, like he did in the equally excellent Animal Kingdom, although his North London accent does slip occasionally to his native Australian.
Jack O’Connell, as the brutal Eric, is mesmerizing. He is a tour de force and this should be a career making film for the young actor. It is a superb performance, full of anger, frustration and embitterment, O’Connell has the same screen presence as Ray Winstone did all those years ago in the seminal Scum. Physically he is terrifying but he also brings humanity to a role that could have quite easily been a one-note affair. If he doesn’t go onto bigger things, then there is no justice in this world.
Starred Up is brutal, uncompromising, shocking and gut-wrenching. It’s a film that grabs you from the moment it starts and refuses to let go. It’s doesn’t always work but it tries and the basic story is interesting enough to keep our attention. Powerful and violent, I think this is a film that will surprise as many people as it will shock.