Jack O’Connell portrays Eric Love, a 19-year-old sent to a British adult prison because of the fact he’s considered to be extremely violent or, in other words, “starred up”. From the outset we can’t blame the authorities for this particular decision and label: within the first few minutes of his stay in the penitentiary Eric manages to fabricate a weapon and, before long, he gets into trouble with the guards and other inmates. It is then that Eric’s estranged and similarly locked-up father Neville tries to set his son straight and that therapist Oliver tries to aid Eric via group sessions. Unfortunately not everyone is as willing to help. While this prison drama is quite contrived in terms of its plot and some of its characters, Starred Up holds up very well thanks to some extraordinary performances that do manage to inject freshness, reality and humanity into the dime-a-dozen narrative.
Right from the start it’s clear that Starred Up visits a lot of familiar prison film territory: there’s the corrupt official, the nice guard, the powerful inmate, and the list goes on. While Jonathan Asser’s screenplay is based on his own experiences as a prison therapist and you would likely encounter these people when you’re sent to a correctional facility, we’ve seen most of it before in other films and Asser’s script fails to add anything new to the genre. Essentially it’s the same plot we’ve seen in most prison dramas, with only the addition of a real father-son relationship instead of a metaphorical one. It doesn’t have anything new or interesting to add to a genre that’s obviously quite confined because of its setting, and therefor Starred Up‘s story doesn’t turn any heads. The plot is not inventive and relies far too much on genre tropes to really register. Fortunately Asser is far more successful when it comes to the writing of the film’s main characters and the prison dialogue, the sound of which lends a genuine feeling of authenticity to the movie.
It’s the star-making turn of O’Connell that jumps out at you, though. His Eric is aggressive, says very little and when he does it’s mostly swear words and insults that come out. But O’Connell is never one-dimensional: he masterfully plays the aggression as a self-defense mechanism and shows you that, underneath all of that, exists a vulnerable, scared and lost young man. It’s also thanks to his acting that his character arc works well; because of the film’s running time of 106 minutes some leaps in development are taken but O’Connell sells you on those instantly, because he keeps reminding you that he’s not simply the ruffian that most of the prison officials see. With his raw performance and versatility O’Connell at times evokes the talent of the now famous British actor Tom Hardy, another actor who cut his teeth on tough roles. But O’Connell isn’t the only impressive performer in Starred Up: Ben Mendelsohn delivers a riveting and layered performance as Eric’s dad and Rupert Friend is disarming and mesmerizing as prison therapist Oliver.
Additionally David Mackenzie’s assured and gritty direction must be commended, as well as cinematographer Michael McDonough’s work. McDonough, much like he did with Winter’s Bone, lends a palpable tension to Starred Up‘s setting because he shoots the hallways, cells and prison yard as if you’re there. He pulls up close to his characters and his naturalistic style makes the film’s surroundings even more imposing than they already are. That, in turn, helps you get invested more in Eric’s struggle and, at times, makes you feel the walls are quite literally closing in on him. It’s really a shame that Starred Up‘s story is so run-of-the mill, otherwise this movie could well have been a prison drama classic.
Starred Up‘s central characters and lead performers are let down by a paint-by-numbers story, but still manage to make this movie an engaging watch. 7/10