An eye-opening prison drama from David Mackenzie
A gut-wrenching and insightful look at life behind bars, told through the experiences of an alternately frightened and ferocious teenager, Starred Up is the ninth film from director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe).
Jack O'Connell (James Cook in Skins) gives an attention-grabbing performance as Eric Love, a 19-year-old offender who’s been moved prematurely to an adult facility in London because of his violent behaviour – in prison lingo he's been 'starred up'. The prison in question happens to house his estranged, hardened criminal father, Neville (another terrifically twitchy performance from Animal Kingdom's Ben Mendelsohn), a man whose absence Eric has felt his whole life.
For the first time, and in his own slightly haphazard way, Neville begins to look out for his son – a boy who's been abused and abandoned and is boiling over with rage. At the same time an alternative father figure presents himself in posh volunteer Oliver (Rupert Friend) who leads therapeutic discussion groups for some of the jail's most troubled inmates.
First-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser has drawn heavily on his experience of running therapy groups in prison and the resulting film is as defiantly compassionate as it is brutal and nerve-wracking; there is hope here, with several characters offered a crack at redemption. Starred Up is also great value as a thriller and manages to highlight the consequences of confinement, staff corruption and the power structures that exist between inmates and officers.
Asser's script is authentically abrasive and peppered with welcome snatches of humour, while Mackenzie and cinematographer Michael McDonough (Winter's Bone) capture the volatility of the environment without surrendering sensitivity to character. The cast are uniformly excellent, with even the Australia-born Mendelsohn's wavering 'Laandan' accent thankfully not breaking the spell. Starred Up gives you a good sharp shake and, in doing so, truly opens your eyes.
Reviewed at London Film Festival 2013.