The savagery of prison life is on full display in Starred Up, a brutal British drama that should make a long overdue star of Jack O’Connell. From director David Mackenzie, the film is an electrifying look at the brutal life behind bars of an explosively violent teen. After roles in the likes of This is England, Skins and 300: Rise of an Empire, Starred Up should be the film that finally makes people take serious note of Jack O’Connell.
When Eric Love (O’Connell) is transferred (or starred up) to adult prison despite being two years too young, he is put on the same wing as his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). The violent, seething, resourceful nineteen year old has become too much to cope with as a youth offender and is now thrown into real prison where his tendency to lash out is likely to get him into a new level of trouble. With his dodgy father looking out for him and insisting on his attendance at experimental anger management classes, Eric’s life in prison could go either way. Beneath the rage and the swagger, there could be some hope of redemption for this young man, if he can only choose his role models carefully.
Jack O’Connell is always a Jack the Lad type character and this is never more so than in Starred Up. He even has the nickname tattooed on his arm and his sneer, swagger and savagery all attest to the boy’s unflinching desire to do damage. After being brought in to the prison, he is stripped and processed. Silent for the first ten minutes of the film, he might appear an unproblematic prisoner. Alone in his cell, he goes about setting himself up with makeshift (and terrifying) weapons and ensuring that when he is attacked, he will be ready. He is a caged animal; cornered, grunted at by the guards, dismissed or threatened by other prisoners but totally unafraid to fight his way out of any corner by any means necessary.
It is not hard to understand how he became this way. As his father becomes an increasing presence in the film, it is clear that violence, threats, anger and brutality were a way of life for Eric since being a boy. His back-story is gradually revealed and while not making him wholly sympathetic, Eric is at least much more understandable than he at first appears. He is psychotic, scarred for life and brutal. In turn he is treated like an animal by all but the psychotherapist Oliver (Rupert Friend) who is determined to help him. Starred Up could turn into inspirational Dangerous Minds style fare here but never does. The language, the characters, the dialogue and action never descend into cliché.
In fact, Starred Up is refreshingly real almost throughout. Apart from becoming a little contrived and over the top by the climax, the film sizzles with realism. O’Connell looks the part, the dialogue is occasionally so thick with slang it is hard to understand and the location drips with misery and menace. A couple of characters stray towards caricature but more of them are left beneficially underexplored, only hinting at their motivations and back stories. As a result they feel as real as almost everything else in the film.
It is a film about the bond between father and sons, the possibility of redemption and the hopelessness of the prison system without some means to mend these angry young men. More than that, it deals briefly with issues of race, sex, class and masculinity and sexuality. In short, it is so much more than a simplistic prison drama. Starred Up is utterly convincing, gripping and at times horrifying. It is time for director David Mackenzie to make moves towards the mainstream and for Jack O’Connell to stand up and be a star.
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