Young offender Eric (Jack O’Connell) is transferred to an adult prison two years early where he must cope on a block with experienced criminals.
Claustrophobia builds in this tense drama as Eric is checked in by prison officers and led slowly through gate after locked gate. Yet Eric’s apparent compliance with the rules is quickly overturned the moment his cell door closes behind him. Eric proficiently builds himself a weapon with just a disposable razor and a lighter.
When Eric’s violent instincts result in a near fatal accident, the extent of his problems are revealed and he quickly makes enemies.
Directed by David Mackenzie (Hallam Foe, Perfect Sense), Starred Up offers a convincing portrayal of inmate relationships along with the rules and codes of acceptable interaction that govern prison behaviour.
Communication between inmates is minimal and, at least initially, their dialogue is hard to follow, being based on an array of street terms from ‘gwap’ (money) to ‘mugged off’ (taken for a fool).
Verbal altercations rapidly escalate into acts of violence. Mackenzie’s attention to pacing in these scenes brews a volatile, unpredictable mood of unease. As the consequences of one event quickly feed into the next, the result is a disturbing, troubling film that explodes with vivid realism.
Starred Up is a step change for Mackenzie whose previous film about two young rock stars, You Instead (2011), revelled in its live filming at music festival, T In The Park, but lacked emotional depth.
Starred Up is brimming with the complexity of human relationships and Mackenzie elicits powerful performances from his cast.
Eric’s arrival on an adult wing sees him reunited with absent father, Neville (Ben Mendhelson) who is likely to be in prison for life. As Neville asserts parental control, the fractious relationship between father and son broods blame and regret, adding to the films already pulsing tensions.
Despite Neville’s best intentions, his fatherly efforts feed into Eric’s troubled sense of self and suggest a cycle of neglect. Mendhelson’s startling performance builds on his 2012 role in Killing Them Softly and he brings a remorsefulness to his character that is simultaneously moving and troubling.
Neville is not the only father figure that prison provides for Eric. Oliver (Rupert Friend), a disturbed and edgy counsellor, gives us insight into Eric through a series of jumpy, highly-strung group therapy sessions with equally troubled inmates.
O’Connell’s performance is career-making, gradually suggesting subtle changes in Eric’s behaviour as he makes his way through the system. His intensity on screen makes Starred Up a compelling watch, flicking from relative composure to extreme violence in a matter of seconds. O’Connell’s affinity for his character results in an acute vulnerability, making Eric’s erratic mood shifts gripping and entirely plausible.
Jonathan Asser’s first script is largely sharp and insightful, based on his own experiences in the prison industry.
Where Starred Up begins to lose its grasp on believability is in the portrayal of its prison officers who veer close to cliche. Crooked Governor Hayes (Sam Spruell), whose shocking conduct is the film’s most implausible detail, lacks the relevant backstory needed to elevate his one dimensional character.
Starred Up is a convincing prison drama that takes an implausible final turn. Yet this final act can almost be forgiven in light of the tremendous performances from O’Connell and Mendhelson. Intense and bubbling with violent rivalries, guilt and emotional damage, Starred Up is a compelling film that puts Mackenzie on the map.
Running Time: 106 minutes