In his feature length debut, Yann Demange’s action thriller takes us to the height of the Troubles in Belfast where political conflict lasted for over a quarter of a century. We witness the hostilities through the fearful eyes of a young British soldier called Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) whose squad is caught in the middle of a riot, and who is accidentally left behind by his unit after events go terribly awry. As he desperately tries to get back to his barracks and fights for survival, he becomes embroiled in a local war of corruption and betrayal. This is a brutally realistic depiction of terror, enhanced by yet another stunning performance from one of Britain’s best.
There is a patient build-up as we’re first introduced to Private Gary Hook, and we get vital glimpses of his youthful innocence before he is thrust into the face of danger. The grainy cinematography as well as the shaky camera techniques assist in creating a pragmatically dangerous environment. An excellent chase sequence had me gripped as the protagonist is hunted down by a ruthless gang of nationalists. Tension drops slightly as Hook meets a young impressionable protestant who seems born to hate the ‘fenian bastards’ as he so eloquently, and continuously puts it. Their brief encounter offers the only glimmer of humour as the youngster struts the dishevelled streets like a mafia boss, but the friendship is brought to an abrupt, shocking climax which highlights the atmosphere of the film and illustrates how treacherous the situation was in Northern Ireland at that time.
In a role much more subtle and understated than we are used to, Jack O’Connell is excellent. With very little dialogue, his performance relies on his range of expression as well as his general screen presence. Earlier this year, we saw him in Starred Up as a disturbed prisoner, visceral and violent. Here, he is vulnerable, and lost in a antagonistic environment that he knows little about. Support comes in force from Paul Anderson and Sean Harris as crooked figures of authority. Harris’ squirrel faced villain is chilling, and with trouble around every corner, so-called factions are paper thin as every character seems willing to stab their allies in the back. The final third plays out a little predictably, though not without moments on extreme intensity as all sides close in on Hook and each other.
The focus of the thriller as a whole leans less on being a story of the Troubles as such, and more a survival movie as the lead is attacked from all angles throughout. It marks an impressive foray into cinema for the director Demange, who along with writer Gregory Burke and composer David Holmes, captures the threatening mood brilliantly. The main strength of the piece is the central turn from O’Connell. We’ll see him on the big screen again soon, this time as an American soldier in Angelina Jolie’s WWII directorial debut Unbroken, which demonstrates the impact he is having within the industry. Until then, we can celebrate the year he has in British film – the rising star has reached new heights.
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The complex father and son dynamic at the centre of David Mackenzie’s prison drama ‘Starred Up’ helps raise the bar for behind-bars British cinema. The well established film environment is refreshed by rising star Jack O’Connell who plays lead role, Eric Love; an unpredictable force who is volatile and vulnerable in equal measures. When his reckless, extremely violent tendencies cause him to be ‘starred up’ prematurely from his young offenders institute to an adult unit, he is reunited with his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) offering up a clever twist to the genre formula. As officers struggle to rein in Eric’s explosive outbursts, prison therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend) employs his patient techniques to try in an attempt to become a calming influence in the troubled youth’s life, but will he succeed when Neville is on the scene with his own methods of discipline?
Written by former criminal psychotherapist, Jonathan Asser, the script is raw and affecting, and feels very authentic, crafted through a wealth of experience in the field. The carefully constructed story contains believable, multifaceted characters which avoid stereotyping and are well placed within the claustrophobic grid like confinements of jail. Immediately after his cell door is slammed shut, Eric empties his belongings and meticulously manufactures a deadly weapon by melting a razorblade into a toothbrush and hides it in a strip light. This instinctive survival routine highlights the kind of upbringing he has endured, demonstrating his lengthy relationship with violence. He soon makes his presence known on the wing and by then the prison politics are in full swing, creating an unnervingly tense atmosphere where trouble is brewing around every corner, and could boil over at any minute, and will.
The performances give solid substance to the in-depth inmates, both O’Connell and Mendelsohn are flawless in their harrowing depictions of mixed-up criminal minds. From his breakthrough performance as James Cook in teen-drama Skins to his supporting film roles in Harry Brown and Tower Block, O’Connell is no stranger to playing the wild and unhinged, and sports a ‘Jack The Lad’ tattoo on his upper arm which most of his characters suitably adopt. Here he has taken it to a whole new level. He carries off the difficult feat of displaying smouldering rage whilst evoking an air of sympathy towards Eric’s unfortunate set of circumstances. His scenes with Mendelsohn are thrilling, and emotionally charged, as Mendelsohn himself has a strong knack for parts with similar impulsive characteristics, his memorable work in Australian gangster film Animal Kingdom resonating. His wiser, yet equally flawed Neville Love doesn’t want his son to grow up to be like him but lacks the paternal influence to stop it happening.
Mercilessly dark in its subject matter, and dogged in its execution, ‘Starred Up’ is the 21st century Scum. The camera closely stalks the figures of machismo like that of a wildlife study, waiting for a hapless prey to be torn limb from limb. O’Connell’s central performance is terrific and as strong as anything I’ve witnessed in a long while. This marks his most powerful piece to date and will raise his profile no end. The vicious plot proves to be as unpredictable as the criminals involved it, resulting in a white-knuckle watch trapped in a tight space and making it a sentence worth seeing out to the bitter end.
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