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The prison sub-genre has produced many great movies over the years, giving us the likes of The Shawshank Redemption, Hunger and Escape from Alcatraz. The critically acclaimed British movie Starred Up from Perfect Sense director David Mackenzie hopes to join their ranks.
Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is a 19-year-old sent to adult prison two years early because he is known as ‘starred up’, a very violent offender. On his first day in prison, Eric manages to make a weapon, knocks out a fellow prisoner which causes a lock-down and fights the prison guards leading to him biting one of them in the testicles. Despite his violent behavior, a prison volunteer, Oliver (Rupert Friend) offers to have Eric in his anger management group and help him change his behavior. Nev (Ben Mendelsohn), Eric’s father and fellow prisoner is forced to try and take his son under his wing, partly to protect him being killed by the crime boss of the prison, Spencer (Peter Ferdinando), because lock-downs disrupt business. But as Eric starts to manage his anger, he finds mentors from other prisoners, putting his father out of place as he tries to be the man he is meant to be.
Starred Up is a harsh look at the British prison system and tells an unconventional father and son relationship. Mackenzie uses handheld cinematography, using sequences that are long takes and gives Starred Up a fly-on-the-wall feel, whether it was following Eric in the prison or simply watching Eric grow in the group sessions and control his anger. Mackenzie shows the violence as prisoners fight, stab and make weapons. He gives us some strong fighting sequences, such as Eric’s first fight and a fight in a shower. There are plenty of elements that would remind people of other prison movies like Scum, A Prophet and Bronson, sharing visual cues when the camera follows Eric, makes his weapon and how he prepares for fights.
At times, Starred Up plays a little like a British version of the excellent HBO show Oz, taking a look at various factions in the prison. There are various criminal forces with their own angles, the personal vendettas between the prisoners and internal politics between prisoners and within the prison staff. There are debates within the prison staff, as they decide what is the best course with dealing with Eric. Oliver is made out to be a hopeful man who actually wants to reform prisoners, give them hope and elaborates on what is the point of prison, rehabilitation or punishment? This is an issue that has been debated in Britain since the end of the 18th century.
A key part of Starred Up is the relationship between Eric and Nev, both excellently played by O’Connell and Mendelsohn as they learn to actually become father and son. Nev has only one setting when dealing with Eric, aggression and shouting, believing he needs to be tough with Eric to get the message across. Yet, Nev states that Eric has a chance of getting released from prison and should play the system, just so he can get out. In prison, Eric finds other mentors in the form of Oliver and two other prisoners, Tyrone (David Ajala) and Hassan (Anthony Welsh) who wishes to usurp Nev’s role.
Eric gets glimpses at what could be his future could be because of the different prisoners he is with. He could end up like his father, a violent lifer, a leading crime lord in prison or be like Tyrone (David Ajala) and Hassan (Anthony Welsh) and actually turn his life around.
Starred Up is a very macho movie, filled with fighting, violence, male posturing and liberal uses of the f and c words as Mackenzie shows this very brutal, violent world. The only prominent female character is one of the Governors played by Sian Breckin and she is only a small role who appears in a few scenes. The female prison guards that appear in the movie are really speaking extras.
Mackenzie has shown himself to be a director who can get strong performances from his actors, such in his previous movie Perfect Sense. He again provides a strong work, through his hiring of a strong cast of respected actors. O’Connell gives a deliberately ambiguous performance as he is hard to read: he is a character that is anti-authority and willing to use his fists: but has some morals and ethics even in prison. Friend is very good in his role as Oliver, but he is made out to be a very nervous and timid character and even though he is a good natured character those traits for someone working with violent offenders.
Starred Up keeps to a British tradition of violent, kitchen sink realism, while the writer Jonathan Asser wants to tell a personal story. It is a brutal movie that makes sure that prison is a terrifying environment and fans of Scum and Oz should enjoy Starred Up.