Starred Up review

Starred Up

Eric, played by Jack O’Connell, is a very troubled young man. Or as he puts it, he’s “starred up mate, and very fucking violent”.

Eric has indeed been ‘starred up,’ which means he’s earned an early ‘promotion’ to a regular prison from Her Majesty’s Young Offenders Institution. Thanks to his violent nature, Eric is being transferred before it would have happened by default on his twenty-first birthday. The prison where he’s going also happens to also host his father Neville, played by Ben Mendelsohn.

The film begins with Eric’s arrival in the prison. Following a strip search, he’s deposited in his cell, which he quickly begins setting up. We see, in his fascinatingly practiced and precise manner, the preparation of  such prison essentials as a weapon made from a toothbrush. Eric’s prep is all presented very matter-of-factly and O’Connell looks so effortlessly natural doing it, that we find ourselves quickly acclimatised to this dangerous and unpleasant place, as well as this particularly violent inmate.

Before long, Eric is clashing with the guards – motivated, it seems, by a mixture of his trying to make a name and his underlying, raw animal instinct. The prison’s warden, his father and a volunteer therapist – Oliver, played by Rupert Friend and who has himself had a few anger management issues in the past – all believe that they know what is best for Eric. But it is clear from the film’s bleak opening moments that this won’t be a punch-the-air tale of Eric’s reinvention.

Instead, this story is one of incremental changes. The transformation in Eric is helpfully reinforced by the presence of his father, the version of Eric that he risks becoming. Unfortunately, director David MacKenzie does feel the need to hammer this point home, and a conspicuous metaphor regarding revolving doors is unnecessary the first time it’s made, let alone the second.

Though, for the most part, Starred Up is more subtle. It’s an impressively rich look at prison life and father-son relationships, and while that’s nothing new, necessarily, it’s hard to think of many prison flicks to achieved the kind of raw potency on display here.

And O’Connell’s performance is likely to really put him on the map. He’s a serious actor well worth keeping an eye on.

Starred Up will be in UK cinemas from the 21st of March and Tribeca Film are planning to release the film in the US at some time this year.