Starred Up shares many of the qualities we have come to expect from the gritty British prison drama. But with the interesting father/son relationship at its core and a stand out performance from Jack O’Connell, there are many things about this film that make it worth a watch.
The film follows Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) as he is ‘starred up’ (having been moved to adult prison despite being only 19) and ends up in the same wing as his estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). Eric ends up here due to his excessively violent nature, something which we become a party too very early on in the film as Eric almost fatally beats up someone trying to give him a lighter. The result being that Eric finds himself in solitary confinement, and strikes a bargain with the prison guards that he can go back to the wing as long as he attends group sessions headed by Oliver (Rupert Friend). Many ups and downs follow; there are still outbursts of violent rages but the group sessions get steadily better until Governor Hayes, who we gradually realise is the real criminal of the film, wades in.
This has all the conventions of a gritty prison drama and for most of the film it does play out that way. But the central father/son relationship means that the film is not unremitting; at times it actually lets up and despite the violence it is not pessimistic. The film gently balances the extreme violence against the budding friendships and progressive group therapy and although it is not got any of the sentimentality of an against all odds success story, there are small rays of hope in the form of human relationships, the friend, the lover, the father.
For the most of it Starred Up is ambivalent to its central character and while it does not shy away from portraying the violent nature of Eric, it does not encourage you to hate him. As with many films of a similar genre, the film plays out like a Greek tragedy, and akin to someone like Achilles, it is Eric’s bursts of anger and pride that become his fatal flaw. The film owes much to O’Connell’s portrayal of said character, and the depth at which he tackles it is overwhelming. Always appearing to be seething beneath the surface and overflowing into fits of terrifying anger and maniacal laughter, it is a full-bodied performance which gives the audience insight and empathy into what could have easily been an alienating protagonist.
The supporting roles are equally brilliant, with Ben Mendelsohn doing what he has proven to do so well in the past few years, where we have seen him as scarily and violently unpredictable characters. Starred Up also sees Rupert Friend doing what he does best and in his role as Oliver, the volunteer prison psychologist, he is both approachable and meek, whilst at the same time managing to convey the tough underside that lurks beneath.
It may not be the first of its kind, but there is something to be said for a prison drama that puts human relationships first. The gritty realism is mingled with the familial bonding, allowing two people to reconnect despite dire circumstance. The result is a film with a soft inner to its tough outer shell, and with the knockout performance from Jack O’Connell, Starred Up well and truly delivers.