Northumberland director, David Mackenzie (Hallam Foe, Tonight You’re Mine), took to the camera for a genre film, his first time doing so, and also his first time filming sequentially, something that he, and his actors, have claimed helped drive the story forward and pull them further into their characters and the world they inhabited. I’m fairly unfamiliar with Mackenzie as a director, having only seen this, and snippets of his music-based tale, Tonight You’re Mine. Here, he shows himself as an accomplished and sharp filmmaker who is not only willing, but encouraging, of his performers reaching into themselves and taking the script to different areas that were perhaps not written on the page. This helps here, with this raw, gritty, and often violent film set inside a british adult prison. With authentic feeling dialogue from first-time screenplay writer Jonathan Asser (who also played Officer Edwards in the film itself), the whole thing has that edge to it that feels very real, at times, and the prison itself doesn’t feel bogus, doesn’t feel over-prepared, and it all goes into making one of the most convincing feeling prison dramas that I’ve seen in a number of years.
The plot of the film follows a young man named Eric Love, played with verve and aggressive passion by Jack O’Connell (Eden Lake), whose crime caused him to skip young offender’s institution and go straight to the big house, adult prison. We meet him as he is being shown to his cell by officers, and witness him getting a feel for the place he would now call home. His aggression gets out of hand, and he has run-ins with both officers and in-mates, with many of the people in charge writing him off, early on, as a hopeless case. We find that much of their prejudice toward Eric comes from the fact that his father is also in prison, and lives on the level above Eric. A father who was never around during his childhood, we witness their strained relationship throughout the film, as it takes various turns. When he has a brutal clash with a fellow inmate, Eric is given a second chance to prove himself as capable of living in the general population when Oliver (Rupert Friend), a voluntary group therapist, offers to assist Eric with his anger in a group he runs. The story follows Eric as he struggles with his anger and his past, as well as his unstable relationship with his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). At its core, Starred Up is a film about a young man attempting to find a way out of a life of crime that has almost been laid out for him. It’s a story of overcoming something that overcomes you as a person, in Eric’s case, his anger and inability to refrain from violent responses to being confronted in any way.
Jack O’Connell brings about a performance that he was born to do. His energy and unrelenting and seething anger is realised brilliantly, and he gives his best performance yet, that I’ve seen. He’s a character that is difficult to sympathise with, someone who handles himself so disgracefully that I found myself questioning whether or not I would be able to feel any semblance of interest in where he, as the character of Eric, would end up when the credits rolled, but O’Connell’s performance here is so good, and played with such heart, that I couldn’t help but have elements of sympathy and understanding for this lad, and why he ended up in the situation he found himself in. Mendelsohn, as Neville Love, the prison-lifer and father of Eric, offers a reluctant shoulder to his son, a son who holds bitterness for him not being there while he was growing up. Mendelsohn’s heartfelt performance was a joy to watch, and he, for me, stole the film. His disapproving glances at his son’s decisions, and his protective, yet selfish, nature showed a character that so obviously didn’t know how to be a Dad, yet wanted to control his son’s behaviour. The scenes involving O’Connell’s Eric, and Mendelsohn’s Neville, are the best in the movie, and provide moments of humour, violence and heart. Friend, as Oliver, the group therapist who stands up for the inmates and is the only staff member to provide Eric with a chance at improving himself, is a character that is vital here too, offering a chance for us to see Eric wrestle with his demons and attempt to push back the feelings that otherwise would have caused him to flip a table, grab a throat and punch the living daylights out of a face. With side characters who offer different interactions, and sometimes dangers, to Eric, such as Anthony Welsh as Tyrone, David Ajala as Hassan, Peter Ferdinando as Spencer and others, the cast offers so much that there is never a dull moment to be found during the running time of this movie.
It is a very severe film, it doesn’t shy away from the ugly nature of violence and crime, and the vile concept of those abusing the power they are afforded. It felt, at times, a little like Felon (2008) and the television show Oz, with the way it dealt with its characters and the vendettas they found themselves in at various times. The side characters bring enough to the table that we are able to see Eric forge friendships and, on the reverse side, make enemies inside the prison walls. I was impressed with the film, its writing and direction, and many of the performances. There were some moments that felt a little cliché, and other times when I feel like the filmmaker wanted me to sympathise with a character when I, in actual fact, didn’t. It’s a hard thing to do, seeking sympathetic responses when the characters in your story are criminals who have, on many occasions, handled themselves very poorly, but it is also very intriguing to watch a director attempt it, and I feel like it was accomplished as well as it could have been here.
Mackenzie has shown himself to be a director whose allowance in letting scenes take on their own shape help a movie feel much more real, and I appreciated that. I’m a fan of prison-based films anyway, but this one was really well done, and showcased Jack O’Connell as a young actor to keep an eye on. I recommend this, to fans of genre fare, and those who like violent, though very human, drama films.