Release Date: 21st March 2014
Running time: 106 Minutes
Director: David MacKenzie
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Rupert Friend, Ben Mendelsohn
David Mackenzie’s prison drama opens with Jack O’Connell’s troubled youngster Eric Love being meticulously stripped searched before being led to his cell. The door slam shuts and the room becomes a vacuum; completely isolated from the law-abiding, outside world. Shortly after, he misunderstands the kindness of one of his neighbours on the cell block and viciously beats him unconscious. In the long line of British films set behind bars, it is clear in the first five minutes that Starred Up is more Scum than Porridge.
On the surface we are very much in familiar territory, with Mackenzie bringing us numerous cliche from the genre. The cell block becomes its own micro-society, based around a hierarchy of corrupt guards and Peter Ferdinando’s convict Spencer, who pulls the strings on the yard. The violence is raw and startling, but it is a savage realism that has become standard for the subject matter. It is the director’s focus on the psychology behind these mens’ actions that elevates the film above the competition.
It is an astounding turn from O’Connell in his first lead role. Fresh from fading into the background in the limp 300: Rise of an Empire, here he is unmissable as the explosive Eric. His violent outbursts see him transferred from a young offenders institution to adult prison, where he finds himself a few cells away from his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). Under orders from Spencer to keep his son out of trouble, Neville insists his son attends group counselling sessions run by Rupert Friend’s Oliver.
Based on the real experiences of scriptwriter Jonathan Asser when he worked as a volunteer prison therapist, it is these meetings where the film really comes to life. They contain blistering and real interactions between Eric and his fellow inmates, where comfort turns to confrontation at the drop of a hat. These exchanges are brought to life by the superb performances from O’Connell, Friend, and the rest of the members of the group, with more testosterone and rage in that small room than anything found on the cell block.
Equally intriguing is the perfectly judge father-son dynamic. Neville seems intent on making up for lost time with a heavy-handed approach to fatherhood. When his son steps out of line, like reducing a squad of riot police to a quivering mess, he scorns him like a misbehaving school boy. Eric in turn reacts accordingly, shrinking from confrontation with his old man. These moments are darkly humorous, but also speak volumes on the effect absent fathers have on fragile young psyche. It is these observations that elevate Starred Up above pretty much every other UK based jail-yard drama from the last decade, with O’Connell delivering a multi-layered performance that should elevate him to stardom in the same way Ray Winstone’s role in Scum did 25 years ago.