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Starred Up

D: David Mackenzie / 106m

Cast: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend, Sam Spruell, David Ajala, Peter Ferdinando, Anthony Welsh, David Avery, Mark Asante, Raphael Sowole, Ryan McKenna, Tommy McDonnell, Sian Breckin

Eric Love (O’Connell) is a young offender transferred to an adult prison.  With a huge chip on his shoulder and an uncompromising attitude, it’s not long before he’s antagonised one of the other inmates, Jago (Sowole), and earned the enmity of Deputy Governor Haynes (Spruell).  When a misunderstanding with a fellow inmate leads to violence, Eric is forcibly removed from D Wing and moved to solitary.  On the way he tries to avoid being beaten and finds an ally in voluntary therapist Oliver (Friend), who intervenes.  Against the advice of Haynes, and with the agreement that if Eric causes even one disturbance in his group he’s banned from any further attendance, the prison Governor (Breckin) agrees to let Oliver try and help Eric deal with his anger issues.

Matters are further complicated by the presence on the same wing of Eric’s father, Neville (Mendelsohn).  Neville is an enforcer for the wing’s top dog, Spencer (Ferdinando), and is instructed by him to make sure Eric doesn’t cause too many problems with his attitude.  Neville tells Eric to keep his nose clean and do what he’s told but he’s a poor role model, and soon becomes envious of the relationships Eric makes with Oliver and the other group members.  His resentment hinders Eric’s progress in the group; meanwhile Jago gets another inmate, O’Sullivan (McKenna) to try and kill Eric, but some of the therapy group intercede and the plan fails.  Later, when an altercation within the group happens, Haynes uses it as an excuse to have Eric removed under the terms of the agreement (even though Eric wasn’t directly involved).  O’Sullivan makes another attempt to kill Eric but is overpowered and he gives up Jago.  When Eric confronts Jago, he gives up Spencer.

This leads to Eric assaulting Spencer and Neville having mixed loyalties.  As he struggles to come to terms with being a true father for the first time, Neville discovers that Spencer has arranged for Eric to “commit suicide” while in solitary, and with Haynes’ cooperation.  With little time to lose, Neville must try and persuade Spencer to change his mind, but if he won’t, to stop his son from being killed.

Starred Up - scene

Based on screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s own experiences as a voluntary prison therapist, Starred Up is a brutal, compelling prison drama that is uncompromising, often savage, and disturbingly realistic in its portrayal of institutional abuse carried out both by prison staff and the prisoners themselves.  It’s a movie that makes no attempt to pull its punches, and it’s this determined approach that keeps the movie both gripping and horrific to watch in equal measure.

As a modern day descent into Hell, Starred Up – filmed mostly in Belfast’s notorious Crumlin Road gaol – is a harsh, merciless look at how violence begets violence and how macho posturing is as much a currency in prison as it is a state of mind.  Thanks to Asser’s impressive script, the movie is chilling in its matter-of-fact depictions of anger-fuelled bloodshed, as well as the mental cruelty prevalent (and on occasion, encouraged) within the prison system.  The worst part of it all is the complicity on both sides, with only Oliver and the inmates in his group willing to try and change things, if only for themselves.  Without this one ray of hope, the movie would be even more challenging to watch, its in-built nihilism being even more devastating to watch.

It’s a tribute both to Asser’s script and Mackenzie’s controlled, rigorous direction that the movie doesn’t descend entirely into loosely controlled anarchy, and that the relationships that develop, particularly between Eric and Neville, are as well-defined and credible as they are.  The father-son bond, so tenuous as to be almost invisible at first, slowly becomes more important to both characters, and there’s an unspoken need between them that inevitably leads to a violent confrontation.  But thanks to two remarkable performances from O’Connell and Mendelsohn, this confrontation acts as a cathartic breakthrough for both men, and allows them both to move on as the family they should be.

These two lead performances are nothing short of spectacular, O’Connell like a coiled spring, Eric’s barely suppressed anger almost threatening to consume him, but thanks to the group something he learns to control rather than be controlled by it.  It’s a breakthrough performance, an alarming, expressive, startling portrayal of a young man struggling to keep his anger and his reputation within the system from defining him.  And then there’s Mendelsohn, making Neville a chilling, rage-fuelled monster of a man, a berserker with little regard for others, a wellspring of bile, racism and thuggish behaviour who can barely contain the fury inside him.  It’s a masterful performance, and when Mendelsohn’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off him; you just don’t know what he’s going to do next.

Ably supported by Friend as the therapist with as many issues as the men he’s trying to help, and Spruell, whose permanent sneer suggests a man who would be equally at home on either side of the fence, as well as group stand-outs Welsh and Ajala, Starred Up boasts a cast that doesn’t put a foot wrong throughout.  It’s such an accomplished ensemble that Mackenzie doesn’t seem to be directing them; instead it seems as if he’s just positioning the cameras and then sitting back (though that probably wasn’t the case).  And the camerawork is just as impressive, with several hand-held tracking shots as Eric roams around D Wing making the oppressive environment seem less confining, less restrictive.  It’s a gloomy set of interiors but the photography by Michael McDonough is richly detailed and on several occasions, beautifully framed despite the prison settings.  The editing by Nick Emerson and Jake Roberts is equally impressive: there’s not one scene that outstays its welcome, or where each element of a scene is given its due significance.

Rating: 9/10 – an effortlessly superior prison drama, Starred Up features a confident, uncompromising script, remarkable, assured direction, and a couple of lead performances that are nothing short of extraordinary; despite its grim backdrop, the movie succeeds in offering hope out of adversity and is complex, challenging viewing and all the better for it.