Its a rare occasion that I’m left speechless (in fact, I’m often the person people are telling to be quiet), but following the final scene of prison drama Starred Up, words escaped me for a minute or so as I found myself reflecting on this incredible piece of British cinema. A genre film through and through David Mackenzie’s eighth feature is an absolute triumph. It’s tough, it’s tense and it’s unforgiving, but it’s a rewarding watch that leaves you wanting more (lets petition for a television series?).
Starring Jack O’Connell as troubled youth Eric Love (a nineteen year old who has suffered through the care system, now finding himself adapting to life in an adult prison), the drama follows his transition from young offenders to the big time after being ‘starred up’. Love‘s criminal father Neville (played by the always intriguing Ben Medelsohn) happens to be at the very same prison, and the two find themselves experiencing a (if somewhat, turbulent) relationship for the first time. Supporting these two is Rupert Friend as Oliver, a therapist of-sorts who genuinely cares for Eric and his fellow inmates. An entirely male-dominated picture (apart from junctures featuring the head of the prison), what we are left with is a masculine feature, a concentration on the egos, attitudes and bad tempers of the men in the hands of the prison system.
Shot with a documentary aesthetic, Mackenzie’s film feels like the real deal; no non-diegetic soundtrack, no stylized editing, just natural shots that concentrate on the key focus of this film – Eric and Neville. Accompanying this realistic visual is the brilliantly underplayed script, written by former prison guard Jonathan Asser (first-hand experience is of course going to make for a thorough, and true to life script) who writes with an assured hand, unafraid to offend with the controversial language or subject matter that is featured throughout. Juxtaposed with moments of reflection and scenes of conversation are that of in-your-face violence which, although never feel overly long and gratuitous, needs a fair warning; this is a prison locale, expect grit. And blood. And some baby oil thrown in for good measure.
The power of Mackenzie’s feature lies with his ability to shoot O’Connell in such a way that we still care for Eric, a young man who, when it boils down to it, is a bad person who has done some awful things (you learn early on what he’s in for and it isn’t pretty). Beyond his detrimental goal that seems to be that of alienating everyone around him Eric becomes a character we are all rooting for in some strange way, whether that just be in hoping that he survives prison. It’s not an easy feat portraying someone like Love, but by positioning the audience with O’Connell’s character, and making him the protagonist (if you can call him that), Mackenzie has blurred the lines of the difference between the good and the bad (and you’re never quite sure who you can trust).
The last twenty minutes are the stand-out scenes for me, utterly shocking and truly emotional, its these finishing moments that exemplify the power of Ben Mendelsohn who is an actor with immense force; his mannerisms, his dialogue, even his facial expressions – its all near perfect. Starred Up is a powerful film that lifts the lid on life in prison, particularly when it comes to the morals of a number of guards. Mackenzie’s film is a provocative and original take on a genre that has been done time and again.