The European prison drama has obtained some prominence in recent years with films such as Bronson, Hunger, and Un Prophete earning popular and critical acclaim across the world. Director David Mackenzie proudly continues this tradition with the British film Starred Up – another unflinchingly brutal look at life behind bars.
The term “starred up” refers to when an inmate is given early transfer from a juvenile institution to an adult one. In this case, the order is for the violent teenager Eric Love (Jack O’Connell). Beginning his long term at the new facility by violently attacking guards, Eric is given the opportunity for “reform” by taking part in group therapy sessions led by the prison’s volunteer therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend). Threatening his treatment is Eric’s father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), with whom Eric has never had a relationship and who is one of the most powerful and calculating prisoners in the facility.
While this seems like an easy set up for a “which father figure will he choose” story complete with the tear-strewn “breakthrough,” Starred Up wisely avoids placing such conventions at the forefront. Some of those components are present, but the script by first-timer Jonathan Asser (a former volunteer therapist in the UK prison system) instead cares more about life in the doldrums of the penal system than the showcase acting moment. Director Mackenzie complements this by doing a magnificent job of presenting prison life as a place of simultaneous unbearable monotony and unbearable tension.
Despite the behind-the-scenes talents, the real strength on Starred Up lies in the performances, particularly of its three leads. Friend (best known as Peter Quinn in Homeland, and will be Agent 47 in the upcoming Hitman-reboot Agent 47) perhaps has the most thankless role as the good-hearted therapist who genuinely wants to rehabilitate his patients, but he isn’t just some bleeding heart who believes in the best of people. There’s an exhaustion, world weariness, and intensity to him that makes him something more than the Angel of the Cell Corridors. Often cast as the father figure to criminals, the always welcome Mendelsohn (The Place Beyond the Pines, Animal Kingdom) continues this tradition as Neville and easily gives one of the strongest performances of his entire career. As someone who has been in the system for much of his life (and all of Eric’s), Neville only knows prison life and how to maintain a facade of calmness and control to belie his savagery. Yet despite being supremely calculating and malevolent, all he’s really gaining is the chance to survive another day.
However, the film’s real presence is Jack O’Connell as Eric. A relative newcomer (he’s had minor roles in 300: Rise of the Empire, Harry Brown, and Skins), O’Connell gives the caged-animal quality, inner conflict, and youthful confusion necessary to make Eric a multi-faceted and fascinating character. Despite his penchant for violent outbursts, Eric isn’t perpetually unhinged. O’Connell makes him antagonistic in more subtle, confrontational ways as well as brings a personable, humanistic quality to Eric’s interactions with fellow inmates, Oliver, and especially Neville. O’Connell allows Eric to be both the unrepentant criminal he needs to be and a character for whom we can almost feel sympathy. (Although this will be seen as the breakthrough role for the young actor, he will almost definitely receive more attention as the lead in this December’s Angelina Jolie-directed WWII POW-drama Unbroken.)
Admittedly, the prison staff is a bit one-dimensionally “evil” in that they don’t care about rehabilitation and adopt an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude towards the inmates. Thankfully, this isn’t overly problematic because they’re mostly irrelevant to the movie’s focus. Even when they purposely scheme against prisoners, it’s hard to even call them the “villain” because it’s practically impossible for them to be any worse than the situation the incarcerated find themselves in every day.
Yet Starred Up is not a “social justice” movie. It’s not about pointing out problems in the system or fighting corruption or suggesting ways for life to be better. Similarly, it’s not about the downtrodden taking on people who rule with an iron fist and bringing light to injustices. It’s a character piece about how people who have no power or hope must survive. They don’t have the opportunity for comeuppance and they never have the chance to prove themselves right. Even their minor victories and personal growth can’t hide that all they really have left is just life of struggle.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
David Mackenzie’s Starred Up is a welcome addition to the European prison drama subgenre. With strong and nuanced performances, particularly from leads O’Connell and Mendelsohn, and intense and claustrophobic direction, Starred Up ranks among the best films so far of the year.