Starred Up, review

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.starredup__131107203448

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 AsserĀ  (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 thatĀ  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.

Actor Profile: Jack O’Connell

With Angelina Jolie as his chaperone, Jack O’Connell is finding his feet in Hollywood. War epic Unbroken is due to be released on Boxing Day and until now the actor has been known for his portrayal of troubled (and troublesome) young men. With initial reports being positive on O’Connell and his up-and-coming role (which will no doubt propel him into super-stardom), a look into the actors previous works seems appropriate.

Many found themselves intrigued by O’Connell during his turn in E4’s Skins; a television series which upped the bar for drama which focuses on young adults. O’Connell is remembered for his role as Cook, a violent teen with a history of rebellion, and a criminal wrap sheet that doesn’t read well. Before this captivating turn came two films which cemented him as an actor unafraid to tackle the big subjects; first is the now classic Brit drama This Is England. Directed by Shane Meadows and featuring O’Connell in only a small role the film explored racism, Thatcherism and the lifestyle that ultimately comes with being a Skinhead. Two years later the young actor can be seen as the lead antagonist in gory indie horror Eden Lake; disgustingly chavvy and repulsively evil, O’Connell plays Brett with a stellar force (this is probably the only role the actor portrays that you find yourself loathing).

Jack O'Connell

Jack O’Connell

After his turn in various supporting roles O’Connell found himself as the lead in 90’s set rave drama Weekender. As Dylan, he stands out as a comedic force with the ability to switch characteristics comfortably and realistically whenever necessary. With five more British titles under his belt between 2011 and 2013 (including Tower Block), last year saw the actor take on a role which would lead to his discovery in Hollywood. Starred Up, directed by David Mackenzie (and co-starring Ben Mendelsohn and Rupert Friend) follows O’Connell as Eric Love, a young man with a pension for violence and a lack of morality which finds him in adult prison at nineteen. This turn, which O’Connell (in an interview with Film4) described, in ways, as a method approach, cemented him as a powerful force – brutal, aesthetically grim and unabashedly real, Starred Up gave O’Connell the power to fully present himself as the adult actor he has become.

This year has been a stellar year performance wise, with a range of diverse roles – from support in 300: Rise of an Empire to the lead in historical action drama ’71. Next comes the eagerly awaited, and much anticipated, Unbroken. As Louis Zamperini O’Connell finds himself in his biggest role to date; portraying the life of a celebrated athlete and war hero. The actor has already won four awards for his role in the film (two of which were joint for Starred Up) and slowly but surely Jack O’Connell is becoming a known force within Hollywood.

Never afraid to portray men who are often treading the thin line between love and hate, and often seen in roles which challenge those watching (aesthetically and emotionally), beyond the perhaps ‘tough guy’ characters he has become so known for, he manages to portray a heart (however hard it is to find that) and O’Connell is a British actor about to take the rest of the world by storm.