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Starred Up – Review
March 19, 2014
‘Starred Up’ refers to a young offender who is sent to an adult prison rather than a young offender’s institution because they are too aggressive to be among their peers. Eric Love is one such person and must learn to deal with being in a prison where the inmates are tough and the guards are tougher. Screened at the BFI London Film Festival it has since gained popularity and awarded 8 nominations at the British Independent Film Awards including Best British film, which I think it deserves for its honestly brutal drama and violence.
Starring Jack O’Connell (Skins), he provides a visceral and unpredictable edge to his performance as Eric, sneering and fighting his way from jail cell to jail cell. The film is visceral throughout. Nothing about jail time is sensationalised to what the media sometimes reports it to be a ‘holiday’ as demonstrated when Eric is subject to a full body search including cavity search as he first enters prison: there is no privacy here. Once inside, Eric quickly prepares himself for any fight against other inmates that will come to see just how he stacks up against them and his ingenuity is astounding in such a harsh place.
Eric isn’t frightened by any of the inmates except for his father Neville, who has been an inmate for a number of years, leading to an odd reunion behind bars. Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) gives a stellar performance as a dad struggling to balance paternal instincts with his hard-cut persona. It is all made harder now that he must cope with going from an absent father to the only person who can keep Eric out of trouble. This leads to several awkward father-son moments: swapping out the clichéd “don’t get into trouble” speech for a “don’t get killed” one is funny in a macabre way. In fact there’s a lot of dark humour throughout the movie, which surprised me considering the tone of grittiness and despair that emanates throughout.
Eric’s first day is hardly over before he beats up another prisoner and a few guards and he’s threatened with being moved to another prison. What he doesn’t realise is that the guards have all the power. Neville provides a cautionary tale of guards killing prisoners who were too hot-headed and then making it look like suicide; at the end of the first day, Governor Hayes played by Sam Spruell (Snow White and the Huntsman, The Hurt Locker) seems very close to acting on this. The only hope Eric has is a group therapy session with a voluntary therapist, Oliver (Rupert Friend) who also has his own anger issues he needs to work through.
Written by former volunteer prison therapist Jonathan Asser, he provides an emotional depth to the characters and a genuine insight into life in prison. This benefits Oliver’s characterisation as a young man trying to make a difference in a prison system that is criticised for being a ‘revolving-door’ and not a place for rehabilitation. The effort Oliver has to go through just to set up such a scheme is as frustrating to us as it is to him, especially when his work shows real promise once Eric lowers his defences and talks about himself to his fellow inmates. Met with anger, violence and a prison hierarchy where Eric sits at the bottom, this is a chance for him to address his issues with others who are equally angry and volatile, but it goes downhill when his father joins the group to see what it’s all about. The chance for Neville to open up makes him nervous and for the first time in the film we can see Eric embarrassed.
Starred up is an honest portrayal of prison life, which thrives on the drama surrounding Eric and the amazing performance that Jack O’Connell brings in a visceral and brutal setting, but it also knows where to be light-hearted by revelling in its misery. Given its 18 age rating the swearing and violence is paramount throughout the running time, even including a naked shower fight in the prison, but the heart and soul of the film make up for such violence. If you’re looking for a great criminal drama, then there’s no reason you should avoid this story of despair and compassion.
Starred Up is out in UK cinemas this Friday, March 21st