Title: Starred Up
Director: David Mackenzie
Major Players: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend
Out Of Five? Four
It may not seem like it at the moment, but David Mackenzie’s prison drama Starred Up could prove to be a watershed moment in British cinema. Not because of its story, but because this one film brings together three significant new talents – Mackenzie himself, actor Jack O’Connell and screenwriter Jonathan Asser. And they’re all capable of making it into the big league.
Eric (O’Connell) is transferred from a young offenders’ institution to an adult prison at the age of 19 – “starred up” in prison parlance – because his behaviour is uncontrollable. Initially, things are no better at the prison: he attacks another prisoner and, in trying to put things right, incurs the wrath of the king pin. Worse still, one of the other prisoners is his father and he’s never allowed to forget it. Eric’s introduction to a talking therapy group doesn’t get off to a great start either, but then it starts to offer some hope ……
The film smacks you in the face immediately with its authenticity. You can almost smell it, especially the acrid bleach the cleaner uses to mop the floors. Here’s there all the time, a constant reminder of the monotony of prison life, day in, day out. Location filming took place in actual jails as well, Longkesh and Crumlin Road. And Jonathan Asser’s script is based on his own experiences of working with prisoners at Wandsworth. It’s no wonder the language is so graphic.
When Eric arrives at the prison, he already speaks fluent violence. It’s his default position: don’t know, don’t understand, hit out. He’s only been in his cell for one night and ends up beating another prisoner, who he mistakenly thought was going to attack him. But it isn’t just the prisoners who are behind bars and brutalised by the regime. The officers are just as institutionalised and, if it wasn’t for the uniforms, only one thing would separate the inmates and their jailers. Who’s holding the keys.
The one stuttering flicker of hope for Eric, and a select few other prisoners, is a group run by Oliver (Rupert Friend), a volunteer psychotherapist. He’s viewed with barely concealed hostility by the prison management, but his group is showing progress. Learning to confront their anger and control it means they’ve grown into a close group and are showing some signs of maturity. Eric’s first encounter with them doesn’t go well – he goes into default position – but Oliver persists and eventually the newcomer starts to experience a different side to life. Comradeship, honesty and encouragement. His innate intelligence also comes to the fore but, for once, has the opportunity to be channelled in a more positive way.
The biggest barrier standing in Eric’s way, apart from his inner rage, is his father, Nev (Ben Mendlesohn), one of the senior prisoners at the jail. The young Eric witnessed much of his father’s violence before he was put into care, which just added fuel to the angry fire, and Nev’s attempts to prevent his son following in his footsteps in the prison are futile. The two eventually have a fight, which is distressing to see, but it marks the start of change in their relationship.
The main roles give the actors plenty to get their teeth into and Jack O’Connell gives a commanding performance as Eric, a lethal combination of anger, energy and intelligence. Ben Mendelsohn is equally impressive as the father who, although he doesn’t have his son’s spark, is still protective of the boy he hardly knows and is consoled by their reaching some sort of understanding. There’s good support too from Rupert Friend as the therapist with mysterious past.
Brutal and relentless, Starred Up is an assault on the senses, with loud metallic noises right from the outset – slamming doors, jangling keys – physical and verbal violence and jerky hand-held filming. But it’s also a riveting piece of cinema that challenges the audience’s pre-conceptions about prison life – and could easily mark the arrival of exciting new forces in British cinema.
Starred Up opens around the UK on Friday, 21 March.