VOD film review: Starred Up
James R | On 15, Jul 2014
Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend
Watch Starred Up online in the UK: All 4 / TalkTalk TV / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Rakuten TV
“Starred Up means you’re a leader,” says prison veteran Spencer (A Field in England’s Peter Ferdinando) to Eric (O’Connell), the new kid on the block. He’s been transferred from juvenile into adult jail two years early. For the system, that means he’s too dangerous. For the people inside it, that means he’s all set to rise to the top.
The problem? That would mean going past Neville (Mendelsohn), a senior con. Who also happens to be his dad.
Nev warns Eric to keep his head down during his stint – but the lad wastes no time in sticking his bonce up, along with his shoulders to boot. Almost as soon as he’s gone through the strip-search welcome, he’s melting a toothbrush in his cell to fashion a blade and taking on a horde of guards. That’s how Eric expresses himself; through violence.
So far, so typically brutal. But while the traditional prison drama sees the innocent corrupted into power, damaged by the system, the disturbing thing here is that he’s already like that. A highly physical presence, he almost seems to be at home behind bars, under his pap’s wing. His old man’s apparent concern for his safety, though, isn’t just paternal care – it’s rivalry too.
That relationship is what makes David Mackenzie’s drama so absorbing to watch. The British director has never been adverse to improvising in his work and that signature naturalism turns the confines of the location into something surprisingly emotional; with nowhere to go, there’s no way unresolved daddy issues can stay that way for long.
Ben Mendelsohn is superb as the messed up male role model, tormenting as much as encouraging his offspring. Ever since his turn in Animal Kingdom, Mendelsohn has delivered a string of intense roles that mark him out as one of the best character actors around – from his stare to his awkward walk, Nev is more land mine than human. The only reason you look anywhere else on screen is Jack O’Connell. The young Brit is astounding as Eric, hypnotically savage but engagingly vulnerable.
In between the blunt punches, Jonathan Asser’s debut screenplay – inspired by his own experiences as a prison therapist – brings out the Eric’s sympathetic side. Superbly handled scenes with group shrink Oliver (Rupert Friend) feel as free-wheeling as they come, letting these conflicted characters collide without resorting to blows. Until, of course, Nev joins in.
There’s a constant, uneasy balance between silence and conflict, scored by uneasy pauses and metal doors slamming shut – there’s no music anywhere in the film. Everyone is governed by it, including Oliver and the corrupt wardens. They all use their bodies to communicate or, more often, intimidate. Violence explodes out of the unspoken tension, while the shrink tries to get people to talk. One tragic scene sees Eric go to Nev to actually voice his feelings. Nev asks his son repeatedly what the matter is but ignores every answer.
Is that prison making them that way? Or is it their natural relationship that pushes them both into these aggressive roles? The guards don’t care. But as Eric and Nev rub each other the wrong way, the thought that either of them might come out the other end unscathed makes us care a heck of a lot.
This is a powerful character piece that moves as much as it shocks and announces O’Connell as a British talent to watch. Starred Up? He should be – he’ll be rising to the top very soon.
Starred Up is available on All 4 until 23rd June 2021.