Starred Up

Starred Up

Youth and Young Manhood


David Mackenzie’s 2013 film Starred Up is an electrifying and emotionally sophisticated take on the prison drama genre. Jack O’Connell gives a raw, uncompromising performance as a hardened youth transferred to a maximum security prison, resulting in him being torn between loyalty to his father, his fellow inmates and his mental wellbeing.

Rating: 8/11


He doesn’t look worried at all. In fact, there are dozens of words you could ascribe to the stoney expression on the young man’s face at the beginning of Starred Up. Pensive. Ashamed. Regretful. A quiet, sullen indignance. But, even on his own in the back of a police transport vehicle, not an ounce of fear figures in his features. Those black, insulated eyes betray none of the terror he must surely be feeling.

The young man’s name is Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), with “young man” being a euphemistic term. Eric is scarcely more than a boy with a ferocious temperament, which he conceals under a layer of bristling poise. We see this in the opening shot and the scene immediately following it, as Eric goes through the motions of being processed into the maximum security prison that will soon be his home. His face alternates between resignation and stiff amusement, but there’s a violent energy to his silence. One of the guards gives him a look over and says definitively, “Single cell, high risk.” That seems about right.

Eric remains unperturbed as he’s walked to his cell, doing exactly as he’s told while tacitly scoping out the prison’s layout. Finally he’s alone in his cell, and we’re primed for some sort of emotional breakdown. Instead, what we get is one of the most well-devised sequences in the history of prison films. Methodically – without any degree of the trembling impulsivity we expect from an imprisoned youth – Eric fashions a shiv from a toothbrush and his shaver, before unscrewing the lighting fixture in his room to hide it. It’s an ingenious setup, allowing us a glimpse at Eric’s actions without any hint as to where (or when) they might pay off. It’s the equivalent of lighting a really long fuse of dynamite in a film’s first scene and then cutting away to a dinner party.

I won’t spoil exactly how the shiv comes into play; suffice it to say, it anchors one of Starred Up‘s most sudden and bloody setpieces. But revelling in gritty action isn’t really the film’s intent. There are always two aspects to prison dramas: the horrific violence of everyday life and the emotional toll of being incarcerated. Starred Up has a more vested interest in the latter, especially as seen through the eyes of someone like Eric. Indeed, the term “starred up” refers to the process by which a 19-year-old like him can find themselves bypassing junior correctional facilities to be imprisoned as an adult.

Jack O’Connell brings a cackling charm to Eric’s ferocity, always with a twinkle in his eyes even at his most unhinged. He plays Eric as a bull, but not an idiot. When he’s offered therapeutic treatment, he’s shrewd enough to point out how counterintuitive it seems to have your captors try to rehabilitate you. He smugly observes to the prison governor that, if they get too good at fixing criminals, “Pretty soon, you’re out of a job.” He’s even able to draw a sharp parallel between the methodology of a paedophile and that of a therapist, though his intent there is less analytical than antagonistic.

As with most wayward youths and hardened criminals, Eric retains his own moral code. When he bashes an inmate’s head in who’s only trying to lend him a lighter, Eric steals someone else’s and gives it to the guy he bashed. Still, he’s filled with a directionless anger and hateful distrust of basically everyone, making his transition into therapy with Oliver (Rupert Friend) extremely difficult. Not to mention, Eric’s managed to get locked up in the same prison as his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), whose loyalty to criminal overlord Dennis (Peter Ferdinando) comes at cross-purposes to his paternal instincts.

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If this all sounds a little contrived, it is. As if prison life isn’t already a daunting enough prospect, the familial aspect and attempt at self-improvement weigh heavily on Eric’s experiences, upping the drama at every turn. But the rich dynamic of the group therapy scenes paves over any concern of shallow exploitation. These sessions – which include O’Connell, Friend and a wealth of superb British actors – have an unvarnished charge to them. The scenes are packed with fiery egos and prickly testosterone, but it’s more satisfying watching each of these hardened blokes try to keep their tempers in check than seeing them lose it completely.

Warring factions permeate the entire film. Dennis, the Kingpin, runs both the inmates and the guards, but there’s always cause for a skirmish, whether administrative or in the cell blocks. Director David Mackenzie – perhaps best known now for the 2016 McCarthy-esque western Hell or High Water – brings a wiry vitality to the material. His bobbing, ducking and weaving camera suits the walled-in feeling much as Steve McQueen’s similar, more clinical approach elevated the brutal Hunger two years earlier. Going further, the claustrophobic setting and internecine squabbles recall Jacques Audiard’s riveting French prison drama A Prophet from 2009, placing Starred Up amongst some of the best examples of the genre.

This is all to say that the plot, while occasionally familiar, is bolstered by Mackenzie’s eye for detail. There’s the awkwardness with which a roomful of grown men wait for a wincing fella to produce a mobile phone from his arsehole, or the matter-of-fact way that the film addresses the sexuality of inmates serving a life sentence. And the uniformly spectacular performances – from Mendelsohn’s brooding intensity to Friend’s warm composure and Ferdinando’s threatening geezer stare – prevent everything from slipping into melodrama or prison movie fodder.

It builds to a climax that, intentionally or not, forgoes the startling conversational honesty of the therapy scenes for a more typical, renegade ending. It doesn’t diminish what’s come before, and there are certainly some stirring moments of father-son bonding that reveal themselves in the film’s final act. But the rambunctious violence of it all does smack of a failure to follow through on the film’s more interesting premise, the notion of wading through the nastiness of prison life and finding grace and sense along the way. Regardless, Starred Up remains a gripping and surprisingly poignant take on the prison drama, full of brains, brawn and a refreshing level of respect for both.

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