Directed by: David Mackenzie
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Rupert Friend, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Spruell
The windows covered in bars, the walls adorned with crumbling paint & dry blood, the air thick with the animalistic mentality of the inmates who inhabit this concrete metropolis. To all those journalists who have repetitively ranted and raved about the cushy conditions British prisoners enjoy at our expense, Starred Up is likely to be a revelation. Sure some may have TVs to watch, but that’s unlikely to be of much comfort when you’re living in such an everlastingly threatening environment; where every man is out to prove his worth, no matter who gets in his way.
It is in to this toxic milieu that Eric, an explosively violent 19 year-old, finds himself. Having been “starred up” from a Young Offenders Institute, Eric finds himself living in a solitary cell, on a prison wing bubbling with aggression. Eric may have been the big man before, but now he finds himself possibly out of his depth. Particularly with his psychotic father watching over him from another cell 2 floors up.
First-time writer Jonathan Asser spent 12 years working with, and trying to rehabilitate, violent offenders and it was upon the axing of his program at Wandsworth Prison that he was inspired to write Starred Up. As a writer, Asser exudes a notable confidence when exploring a subject that clearly means so much to him, and the film is at its most enthralling when exposing the trials and tribulations of trying to rehabilitate those the rest of society have deemed undesirable, as well as when examining the bureaucratic arguments about whether rehabilitation has any worth at all.
As the offender at the centre of the argument, Jack O’Connell is electrifying as the ferocious Eric. His aggressive discontent towards all who surround him, be they friend or foe, is startling. However, what impresses most is O’Connell’s implicit portrayal of Eric’s inner torment, which subtly allows the audience in. For much of the opening act Eric remains silent, his face telling the story. As he begins to eye-up his new surroundings, flickers of fear appear across his hardened features; allowing us to begin connecting with Eric, even if it is on a minimal level. No matter how aggressive a front he puts on, he can’t help but be momentarily fazed by this newer, more threatening environment and O’Connell’s talent for exuding this so meticulously is mesmerizing.
The scenes of Eric, aided by Robert Friend’s psychologist and a handful of other inmates, trying to bring control to his aggression are the film’s finest. Director David Mackenzie shoots these scenes, as he does the whole film, with a visceral intimacy that enhances the narrative’s theme of isolation. Clearly borrowing from his own experiences, and by utilizing O’Connell’s unpredictable aggression, Asser builds almost unbearable levels of tension during these scenes. Michael McDonough’s low-key camera work, mercifully untainted by reckless cuts, layers the film with a heightened sense of authenticity that few prison dramas have achieved in the past.
It’s such a shame then that the core of Asser’s narrative feels too flimsy to hold up against such promise. The central relationship between Eric and his father, Ben Mendelsohn’s Neville, feels out of place and does nothing beyond tarnishing the legitimacy of the film’s rehabilitation element.
It doesn’t help that Mendelsohn’s performance feels wildly over-exaggerated at times. Or that the film so frustratingly insists on ticking off the boxes of standard prison drama clichés: shower fight – check, homosexual cellmates – check.
It’s so disappointing, as Asser really does feel like he has something genuinely important to say about our unfounded dismissal of offering help and support to those who have done wrong. Within Starred Up is a brilliant film that, like Eric’s rage, is waiting to burst forth… but unlike his rage, it fails to do so.