Starred Up (2014)

Starred UpWhen troubled and temperamental teen Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is transferred to an adult prison, he finds himself detained with the father who abandoned him as a child. Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) has been inside for years, and has made something of a name for himself on the ward, having allied himself with top dog Spencer (Peter Ferdinando) and exploited with the weak links among the prison staff. He attempts to mentor Eric, enrolling him in counselling sessions with Oliver (Rupert Friend) in the hope of shortening his prison sentence — or, failing that, teaching his son the tools to necessary survive and flourish in an adult prison environment.

Any successful set piece — be it a song and dance number, an action sequence or a special effects extravaganza — doesn’t aim simply to dazzle or amaze in isolation, but to drive the story forward and develop the characters involved. In the case of Starred Up, these set pieces take the shape of aggressive displays, not of glorified fight scenes but of often pathetic posturing and provocations. Importantly, and unusually, they speak volumes about the relationships that comprise David MacKenzie’s film.

O’Connell’s Eric is a magnetic presence, as vulnerable as he is volatile. The Skins actor has made a career out of playing bullies and delinquents, each more unlikeable than the last, but here he portrays Eric with just enough heart and humanity to make him sympathetic. It’s an incredible performance, and one that sees him stripped bare both physically and emotionally. Even in the opening scene, in which the camera follows Eric from behind through the various stages of induction, you can feel something brewing. The counselling sessions in particular are a compelling watch, as O’Connell sparks off of David Ajala, Antony Welch and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr., making slow but striking progress with the help of Rupert Friend’s Oliver.

It obviously helps that the screenplay was written by someone with prior experience working for the rehabilitation of offenders. Jonathan Asser is a 50-year-old psychotherapist who practiced Shame/Violence Intervention (SVI) at Wandsworth Prison. His studied and shrewd observations make all the difference, and Starred Up benefits immeasurably from an attention to detail and psychological complexity that most films on the subject of criminality lack. Asser comments on everything from masculinity and valour to the effects of imprisonment on a person’s identity — whether racial, spiritual or sexual. These aren’t “daddy issues” in the usual Hollywood sense, but recogniseable and relatable crises of character.

That is not to suggest that Starred Up is not a gritty and at times grueling prison drama, because it is; there is, however, an emotional as well as practical realism to MacKenzie’s film, Asser’s script and O’Connell’s performance that makes it a very human drama as well.

4-Stars

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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