Starring: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend
Despite only being 19, because of his unstable and violent nature, Eric (O’Connell) is transferred from a Young Offender Institution to an adult Prison two years early (referred to be as being ‘starred up’). Now having to fend for himself amongst hardened and dangerous criminals, Eric has also been placed in the same wing as his father Neville (Mendelsohn), only increasing the tension within the wing. Written off as a ‘control problem’ by the Governor of the wing, Eric seems on a path to complete destruction, until the wing’s voluntary therapist (Friend) mentor’s Eric to help him control his severe anger and trust issues. However, with tension and unease on the wing increasing due to Eric’s arrival, only exacerbated by his complex relationship with his father, does Eric even stand a chance to find redemption?
Here in Britain we do like an intense and moody prison drama, whether it is on film or TV. David Mackenzie’s low budget addition certainly contains the occasional contrivance and cliché, but is a superbly acted, written and put together drama whose feeling of authenticity creates an atmospheric, intense and engaging experience.
Drawing on his own personal experience as a prison therapist, debut screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s naturalistic and macho dialogue feels never less than authentic as many of the film’s characters use it as a defence mechanism to mask personal traumas and issues that often rear their ugly head. Filmed in a disused Belfast prison, Mackenzie’s camerawork and Michael McDonough’s cinematography create a genuine sense of claustrophobia. Many scenes unfold slowly, almost happening in real time, and though they make the film’s 106 minute running time feel longer, this only adds to the authenticity as (I can only imagine) prison itself can feel like that, and there is without a doubt an underlying and uncomfortable feeling of tension throughout the narrative that feels natural and never forced.
Though some of the plot devices do feel a little contrived, with certain elements verging on melodrama, this is ultimately a character driven narrative. The characters themselves are extremely well written, with dialogue used very sparingly as exposition, helping to enhance the depth of these incredibly complex characters. Though I do not feel he will ever be the greatest actor, and was out of his depth in 300: Rise of an Empire, the role of Eric is perfectly suited to Jack O’Connell’s style and he delivers a physically committed performance, putting so much anger and frustration into every facial expression and line of dialogue. It is full compliment to Asser and O’Connell that we care if Eric finds redemption and are intrigued to see if he can actually change.
In yet another role playing a nasty piece of work, Ben Mendelsohn is a superb screen presence as Neville (he nails the accent too), and though his character arc may be less than surprising, he proves to be an engaging antihero. Rupert Friend is also exceptional as the prison therapist; giving a suitably physical and edgy performance, his body language and delivery of every line of dialogue he says suggesting more dark history about his character than is ever explained (a good move from Asser in my view as this is ultimately not the therapist’s story), but ultimately giving him more depth as a character.
Though the final third does descend into melodrama, many plot developments can be seen a mile off and some of the Prison staff feel like contrived caricatures, the natural feeling of intensity and claustrophobia remains, and Asser is happy to pose questions, but not necessarily answer them all, making the whole experience all the more memorable and engaging from start to finish.
Though narrative contrivances and melodrama do rear their ugly head, thanks to great performances and a script from someone who knows what he is writing about, Starred Up is a claustrophobic, intense and genuinely engaging British drama.