Starred Up

Directed by David McKenzie (Hallem Foe, 2007), Starred Up could easy have been a failed ego-trip, instead it is a carefully crafted study of the violence and pressures on on inmate and how the effect those around him. The main protagonist (I’m not sure if you can say Hero) is a young man Eric Love (Jack O’Connell 2008), still in his teens, who has been “Starred-Up”, essentially he has been transferred from juvenile prison to the adult regime. This we quickly learn is because of his temper and propensity for violence. Immediately there are two comparisons to be made here; initially Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009) where we see outsider Malik El Djebena (Tahir Rahim) settle in to prison life and learn how to exist and even grow (in his way) by learning how to deal with the gangs and hierarchy in the prison. Both prisons deal with adapting to life “on the inside” as do many more. One film which goes beyond that is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson (2008) with Tom Hardy (Warrior, 2011) where we see prison life through the story of Britain’s hardest and most disruptive prisoner.

Young Eric is full of attitude and has more than enough fellow inmates to knock the spirit out of him, Once he is in his cell, his first act is to put together the necessary ingredients for a home-made shank and hide them about his cell. Given his background he has unfortunately come to the attention of the Deputy Governor (Sam Spruell, The Hurt Locker, 2008), a man, who can best be described as not a very good example of a Prison Service employee, corrupt and violent he has it in for the young lad. Despite all of this against him, there is a ray of light, or two.

Pretty soon we Eric come under the protection of another prisoner, who it turns out has a level of respect and authority in the prison, that prisoner is the lieutenant for the prisoner kingpin and also happens to be Eric’s father; Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn, The Place behind The Pines, 2012) who has a difficult relationship with his son, not least of all because of his absence in his son’s life, but also in trying to protect him and the tension inherent in the situation. Eric is sent to group counseling which starts-off with the usual conflict and fighting, but only for the intervention of his father and counselor Baumer, is he allowed to continue. The two strike up a friendship which ultimately leads to Baumer’s dismissal due to his coming up against the Deputy Governor.

The movie progresses to the inevitable show-down through Eric finding his place in the pecking-order and not particularly liking it. While he is willing to play by the general rules, he cannot and will not accept personal treats and affronts, from anybody this ultimately leads to him making enemies who would prefer to see him dead. His enemies eventually attempt to make a move, which he is able to see off to a degree.   There is a tension which is constructed well and manages to maintain a degree of “reality”.

Normally a movie of this sort might not grab me, but the feedback was such that I thought I would try it and I am glad I did. All of the cast put in performances which should be good for their careers. The characterisation is excellent, with us following those we are meant to and striving to see them succeed. This is not a prison movie, it is a road movie set in a prison.

I could give a blow-by-blow account of the various turns and developments which ultimately bring the film to its climax, instead I would suggest sit back and enjoy, one of the best British films of recent years. There are quite literally no punches pulled here, it is violent and graphically so in places but not gratuitously. The impact on O’Connell’s career can be seen through his following roles, it is immediate and justified.

**** movie


This movie tells the story of a young British soldier  accidentally separated from his squad and forced to try and find his way back to barracks. First time director Yann Demange  manages to capture a certain moment in the earl'71ier years of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland and Belfast in particular.

A friend of mine asked what all the fuss was about with “Twelve Years a Slave” in America, I mentioned the historical nerves that it touched and mentioned how we tend to look at works about Northern Ireland in a similar fashion, with a very critical eye. This is true for “’71” also, would it be an overly simplified piece of almost offensive rubbish, or be able to stand on its own. It did, it worked.

That said, could this movie have been made 10 or 15 years ago, possibly not. Wounds, if they can, need time to recover. This movie touches on a number of the historical elements which might be overlooked by some.  The  movie works by deliberately not looking at the bigger picture of the politics of Northern Ireland, instead it pieces together a montage of events all linked to the young squaddie trying to get out of a situation alive.

Fresh out of training private  Garry Hook, along with his squad, is posted to Belfast. We see O’Connell’s character finishing his training, say farewell to his son and ending up on a cot in a disused hall in an old school, somewhere in Belfast. We see from the time with his son that, he’s an ordinary father who loves his son and gives the impression he just wants to get on with life.  The “elephant in the room” here is O’Connell’s performance in “Starred Up” (2013) where he played the part of a young offender, who because of his violent nature was starred up to the adult prison, where he fights to fit in, overcome his own flaws and even meet up with and reconcile with his inmate father. O’Connell’s character showed a potentially decent person trying to come to terms with his way of life and the inherent violence it brings. While in ’71 we see what is basically an ordinary guy dealing with immeasurable violence as well as charity.

On the first full day in Belfast the  squad is tasked to provide security cover to the RUC while they raid a group of houses on a street. Prior to setting out, their equally inexperienced lieutenant (Sam Reid, Anonymous , 2011) orders Berets only, because they are trying to win the hearts and minds of the locals. The squad stand the line protecting the perimeter of the police operation, however the situation quickly descends, the platoon is overwhelmed by the crowd , a soldier is injured and in the confusion his weapon is stolen, private Hook and another are sent to retrieve the rifle but in doing so are set upon by the locals. One of the local women manages to get the gang off them, only to have a member of the provisional IRA shoot the other soldier and after a chase, fail to shoot Hook.

In the chase that follows we come across Captain  sandy Browning (Sean Harris, Harry Brown, 2009) and his men.  Together they make-up an undercover team working behind the scenes with both loyalist and republican terrorists. O’Connell manages to escape the young republicans who despite orders from the “Old-guard” not to kill the soldier, continue on their search for him. Meanwhile he is found by a young loyalist boy (Cory McKinley), whose father was killed and whose uncle is  a serving senior loyalist volunteer. While in the pub where they are based events unfurl and set private Hook is once again on the run, this time he is rescued by republicans. Towards the end of the night we are faced with the regular and undercover army looking for Hook, and competing elements of the IRA also searching for him.

The movie works best for those who have some background knowledge of The Troubles, the dust-bin protests, the double dealing, the undercover squads, the rules and struggles with in the paramilitary groups and how the ordinary person is impacted.  Two of the younger IRA volunteers Martin McCann (Killing Bono, 2011), and Barry Keoghan (Love/Hate, 2013) came to attention not least of all because of their  parts which showed how people are brought in to causes and essentially be the foot-soldiers of higher-ups who are intent on keeping a distance.

There are a number of twists along the way in this movie, seen from the view of history they walk. Overall this movie captures an event and all it entails without sending any particular political judgement. If there is a judgement it is on the situation in its entirety and how ordinary people from all lives are caught up in events. Just who can be trusted? People turn against their own people for various reasons, not least their own self-protection. Overall an excellent movie which flows well and produces exactly the performances needed by all the cast.  This is one of those films that will not hurt the career of anybody involved.

Rating 8/10 –