Review first published by EyeforFilm
Starred Up is a story of fathers and sons, of violence and control, of pent-up emotions and revolving doors, of self-perpetuating problems and unwanted (if certainly effective) solutions. In other words it is a film about masculinity and society, which just happens to be set in the closed system of a prison. That said, its allegorical underpinnings are offset by a pervasive realism: for it is the first screenplay by Jonathan Asser, who has spent 12 years in therapy sessions with some of Feltham’s most violent offenders; and it is shot in a fully intact former prison, HMP Belfast (aka Crumlin Road Gaol) in Northern Ireland.
The title comes from prison slang for the premature transferral of a juvenile offender to an adult penitentiary. Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is a hyper-aggressive teen who has lived most of his life in a succession of care homes, Secure Units and, latterly, a Young Offenders Unit. Now his extreme volatility – and the danger it poses to those around him – have seen him ‘starred up’ and, through an ironic twist of fate, brought into unusual proximity to his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a hardman lifer who was locked up when Eric was five. Deemed high risk and placed in a single cell, it is not long before Eric is up to his old tricks, lashing out violently against guards and fellow prisoners alike, and threatening to upset the well-oiled network of drug distribution within the prison.
The Governors and guards, several of whom actively facilitate illegal activities on their watch, want all problems contained and Eric put in solitary confinement – but prison psychotherapist Oliver (Rupert Friend) negotiates for the young man to join a tight-knit group for sessions in anger management and trust building. Gradually, this starts paying off – but there are powers, both criminal and custodial, that desire a return to the status quo. Eric is set on a collision course with his father, to confront his legacy of abandonment, hatred and rage – but also of that other, more tender emotion, encoded in their common surname.
To say that Starred Up feels like John Hillcoat’s Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (1988) in a yard fight with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson (2008) is just another way of declaring director David McKenzie’s high ambition in the pecking order of the prison flick – a subgenre known to be overcrowded, hierarchically organised and unforgivingly hostile to any weaker new entries. In following Eric’s progress (if that’s the word) through the penitentiary, McKenzie shows everyone, inmates and guards alike, to be trapped in a corrupted, corrupting system that resists all change, preferring either to isolate, or even kill off, its more difficult detainees – or else just to move them on to the next institution. Clichés are avoided by the complicated characterisation of both Neville and Oliver, leaving viewers genuinely unsure under whose influence Eric would be better off. Meanwhile, O’Connell and especially Mendelsohn put in visceral, tinderbox performances, balancing their terrifying pugnacity with a more fragile sensitivity. It is just a pity that the film’s final, symbolic image is one that had already been shown earlier in the film, diluting somewhat its ultimate impact.