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.