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.