Title: Starred Up
Country: UK, Ireland
Genre: Drama, Crime
Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Jonathan Asser
Cinematography: Michael McDonough
Gershwyn Eustache Jnr
A UK prison drama directed by David Mackenzie (YOUNG ADAM 2003 and ASYLUM 2005), which has instantly leapfrogged Jack O’ Connell to the most promising young actor echelon, who would win BAFTA Rising Star Award later for Angelina Jolie’s UNBROKEN (2014), if his demonic performance in James Watkins’ EDEN LAKE (2008) has evaded you, you should definitely give it a try!
STARRED UP is a term means putting a teenager offender to adult prison due to his violent nature, and the film is exclusively shot inside a UK prison and defies any flashbacks to elaborate on the history of main characters. Our protagonist is a 19-year-old boy Eric Love (O’Connell), we follow him being transferred to an adult prison where later we will be informed also resides his father Neville (Mendelssohn) who is serving life-sentence, which forcibly proposes a motive for Eric’s unjustifiably savage conduct – he is just a boy looking for his absent father. One might suspect Mackenzie has applied a poetic license to depict a more relent prison environment to give Eric a full gamut of experience before prison officers put their revenge into action in the climate, otherwise, considering how corrupted the system is represented, one doubts Eric can ever survive retribution from the very place.
The film charges an engaging pace and a fast editing scheme to offset its claustrophobic setting, Eric is aggressive, bull-headed and seethes with danger and wherever he goes, we become wary about the safety of those who are around, especially the awfully nice jailer Selfy (McDonnell), there are even female guards in a male’s prison in UK, what a fair example of equity! The usual disputes among inmates are less grimmer compared with the authorities’ viciousness under the surface, as Eric’s opponents are far less competent to be life-threatening to him. Meanwhile a subplot is about Oliver Baumer (Friend), a voluntary inmate counselor who organizes group sessions for those who have severe violent tendency, prominently save Eric, the rest is all black. Oliver is designed as a ray of sunshine but what is equally intriguing is his backstory, a misfit in the society needs his patients more than they need him. Also the scenario reminiscent of Jacques Audiard’s universally praised A PROPHET (2009), but STARRED UP’s main spotlight is always on the blood bond, a father’s redemption to protect his own while the former is a masterful dissection of prison philosophy.
O’Connell shines in his career-defining performance, impressively in his physical form and not shies away from nudity scenes and violence, which brings highly realistic impact on screen, Eric’s transformation is predictable but he never overdraws the credibility during the process. Australian thespian Ben Mendelsohn, whose inherent criminal flair is put into great use, as Eric’s equally hot-tempered father (something definitely runs in the genes), it is a showboating role, and he is perfect in it. Friend, on the contrary, is actually the more complicated character, but he remains unbelievably humble all the way through. It is rewarding to see Mackenzie bring us such a powerful genre cocktail of suspense, drama and affection, only if the aftertaste can be less cloying when things turn out exactly what viewers can possibly imagine, with a feel-good smugness on its tail.