A prison setting has great cinematic potential, but more often than not it has become nothing more than fodder for mediocre TV shows or action films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. David Mackenzie’s Starred Up achieves a rare thing. Mackenzie’s third turn at directing, following Young Adam and Hallam Foe, fully realises the all-encompassing, thrilling drama that can be drawn from the uniquely contained society of a prison: a world that operates on its own brutal terms, possessing its own languages, rules and norms.
Starred Up is unnervingly violent and more exhilarating than even the best action films, but it’s still really a character study. Eric (Jack O’Connell) is a violent young offender transferred to an adult prison. Inside, he finds he’s in the company of his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), and undergoes group therapy led by a dedicated volunteer called Oliver (Rupert Friend). Eric is a young man so troubled that violence is the only way in which he can really communicate. O’Connell plays him with a ferocious energy that borders on full-blown mania.
Deservedly, O’Connell’s performance has led him to be hailed as the ‘next big thing’, but the supporting performances shouldn’t be overlooked. Friend is convincing as Oliver – a prim and proper ex-public-school boy holding his own abandonment issues – but it is Mendelsohn who is particularly memorable. Neville is a despicable character, a bitter shell of a man with a perverse vision of the world. Yet, through Mendelsohn’s layered performance, and Jonathan Asser’s sharp script, Neville’s warped and disgraceful excuse for parenting is somehow validated, in its own skewed way. The treatment of the father-son relationship is the film’s best asset. It’s agonisingly dysfunctional, but not without moments of genuine affection, despite the feelings of frustration and disappointment between them.
The script is concise, yet revealing: a perfect match for the note-perfect performances. At one point, Eric seeks out Neville to talk, who is sat with his cell mate. For just a moment, the cell mate’s hand is placed on Neville’s thigh, and the ensuing silence is broken with Neville’s blunt, ‘it’s prison, innit’. Eric sits totally stunned. A scene later he’s alone, and he shudders. It’s actually a surprisingly funny scene, made so impressive because it’s so swiftly done. The meandering scenes that have been the standard in independent-made dramas for the past few years can be effective, but there is plenty to learn from Starred Up’s succinct plotting.
At points, Starred Up slips into easy conventions: characters like the corrupt prison officer and the prison gang leader are cardboard-cut-out villains, and Eric’s progression in therapy seems to occur all too easily. But this doesn’t prevent Starred Up from being anything other than an exceptionally well-made film, bursting at the seams with talent.