The words ‘British’, ‘gritty’ and ‘prison drama’, when used in close proximity, don’t tend to lead to packed out cinemas.
That Starred Up is also brutalising, horrifying, and highly uncouth (with a particular fondness for using ‘see you next tuesday’) rather compounds the problem. Fortunately there’s a counterbalance: it’s f***ing great.
Eric (Jack O’Connell), 19, is ‘starred up’, the term for premature upgrading from a Young Offenders to an adult prison. After just shy of two decades of solving his problems with violence (which works surprisingly well, except for its habit of becoming self-perpetuating) he’s close to institutionalised. As an example of how that would play out over another two decades we have Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), Eric’s father, and long time resident of Eric’s new home. Father and son are cut from the same cloth; they only know violence, they only understand violence. Neville has the instinct to play father (his orders of “Listen to the gentleman” and “Be good in class” are beautifully out of place in the prison setting), but his practical knowledge is somewhat lacking. Prison therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend) has a better idea how to help: a neat process known as ‘talking’. All he needs to do to is convince Eric to get out of his own rage-fueled way, keep Neville from interfering, and manouever around a narrow-minded Governor (Sam Spruell). Oh, and also keep Eric alive.
Starred Up is, for all intents and purposes, a horror movie. Once we know what Eric’s capable of — that he can lash out and bring his world tumbling down in an instant — the tension level is set high, with no intention of abating. To manage this the ﬁlm takes a note out of Sam Raimi’s horror playbook: add humour. Without the script’s occasional lightness of touch the experience would be too dour, grim and, well, British.
The director, David Mackenzie, has been engaging enough in the past (Hallam Foe is particularly worth catching), but here he makes a big leap forward with the help of ﬁrst time writer Jonathan Asser, who used to work in the penal system; in effect in the same role as Friend. Asser’s sharply observed exchanges, especially in the group sessions where he juggles a half dozen different volatile, but fragile, characters, are what make Starred Up unique. Everyone onscreen is ﬂeshed out in a way you rarely see in British cinema, or cinema in general. O’Connell is phenomenal, utterly convincing, showing the duality of Eric, that he’s fragile and lethal, angry and broken, with a keen intelligence under the bravado; Mendelsohn, now perpetually typecast as the rage-fueled disappointments in society’s gutter, continues to give each of his burnouts their own distinctive and warped manner; whilst Friend, best known for his forgettable one-note performance in Homeland, considerably steps up his game, which suggests he’s being underused in the American drama. There’s just one hiccup: Spruell’s Governor, who is one step away from being a full-on moustache- twirling villain. And that one step is really just the growth of a moustache for said twirling.
Up until the ﬁlm’s closing scenes it’s grounded, credible, harsh, funny and fascinating. When it switches from grounded to high drama it’s no less effective, but it’s a shame there wasn’t another way to play things. A more credible way. Which is just nitpicking. Asser and Mackenzie have created a brilliant raging account of a ﬂawed system, and they’ve done it with heart.
Starred Up film review by Tom Charles
See and read more of Tom’s work at sketchy-reviews.blogspot.co.uk