Sunday, 20 April 2014


David Mackenzie, the director of the likes of Hallam Foe and Young Adam, is probably the last person you would expect to helm a violent prison film but it appears he is a perfect fit. Starred Up tells the story of a youth offender, Eric (Jack O'Connell), who is moved from his young offenders institute due to his temperamental and violent behaviour. It doesn't take long for Eric to realise the stark differences between the offenders institute and prison. Eric's unstable existence is complicated when Eric's father, Nev, is on the same ward.

O'Connell is an actor who has been lingering around British cinema, in the likes of Eden Lake and Harry Brown ever since he left Skins but this is the breakout role the young actor has been waiting for. O'Connell attacks the role of Eric with what can only be described as fierce velocity, best exhibited when he gets his teeth round an officer's testicle in a violent and animalistic display of power. With a performance that resembles a hybrid of Ray Winston in Scum and a bull terrier let off it's leash. The actor hardly spends any of the film standing still, with his adrenaline pumping Eric attempts to establish himself in the violent hierarchy of prison life. O'Connell holds nothing back and puts on a powerhouse performance which will no doubt have Hollywood calling.

Ben Mendelsohn is as brilliant as you expect, playing Nev, Eric's father. Mendelsohn has made a name for himself as the go to guy for sleazy, troubled middle aged man role, with his calling card being his scene stealing role in David Michod's Animal Kingdom. And he keeps it up in Starred Up, managing to pull off the authenticity of a jealous father who never got to raise his son. Also, he ditches his native Aussie accent and manages to pull off a gritty English accent with ease. Rupert Friend is brilliant as volunteer anger management worker, Oliver, who opens up to Eric in an attempt to prove the prison governor that there is hope for his future. The character of Oliver at first appears somewhat one dimensional but it is soon evident that just because his ability to walk out of the gates every night doesn't mean he is free. Nev and Oliver fight to be the male figure in Eric's life and it is clear that there is only room for one.

The term "gritty" is banded around far too much these days but MacKenzie's film deserves the adjective. The director holds very little back with Eric slashing and smashing his way through prison life. A large percentage of the film's authenticity is the result of Jonathan Asser's script. Before Asser penned the script, his day job was a prison therapist. You can get a real sense of that experience through Oliver's therapy classes, which is where the film's script resonates the most. However, despite this concentration on realism Mackenzie manages to make something beautiful out of the brutality, accomplishing this with his handheld shots catching the intimate life of the inmates. Possibly Mackenzie's greatest achievement is his ability to transcend the sense of claustrophobia. Every time the the door slams or the gates are locked, we feel Eric's incarceration. The outdoor scenes are the only time we get a sense of fresh air.

Prison film clichés are evident but are also inevitable. Asser includes dodgy prison governors and bent wardens but they do very little to the effect the power of the final film, despite the fact Mackenzie never answers our questions as the credits roll, opting to leave it up to us to decide. Although the end feels a little rushed in places, it is a touching and emotional conclusion that show the inmates are just as human as anyone else.

Although we are only four months into 2014 and to describe a film as the film of the year is premature but Starred Up is a truly magnificent piece of cinema. No doubt this will serve as a calling card for Mackenzie but this is O'Connell's film without a shadow of a doubt.


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