Starred Up is a brutally realistic depiction of life inside a rough British prison. Filled with great performances and a harsh emotional core, it’s one of the best British films I’ve seen in a while.
Jack O’Connell stars as Eric Love, a teenager who is moved to an adult prison after he is deemed to be too violent. Also in the prison is his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), whom Eric hasn’t seen since childhood. We learn that as a child, Eric had it tough. The relationship between him and his father becomes even more precarious when Neville tries to control Eric, and be the father that he never was now that he has the chance.
O’Connell’s performance is the complete opposite of his portrayal as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken”. In fact, “Unbroken” maybe needed a little bit more of what this movie has: gritty realism, bleak objectivity and a bolder stance on violence and cruelty. Instead of a pristine, 1940’s American pin-up child, O’Connell is a cockney, cocky, brutal thug, and boy, does O’Connell suit this type of character a hell of a lot more. Not only is Love violent and unforgiving, he’s smart; maybe a little too smart for his own good. I’m not saying the guy could ace a physics test, but he understands how the life of a prisoner works, and he’s nothing but a thorn in the authority’s side as the prison staff do their very best to calm him down and teach him a lesson.
Love finds reprieve at the hands of the prison’s voluntary therapist, Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend). Although their relationship gets off to a rocky start (I assume all relationships a character of Love’s type would), they begin to bond, along with the other offenders attending Baumer’s group sessions. Baumer confidence in the lads never waivers, and the prisoners look up to him as an intelligent, patient, considerate man; the complete opposite of what they’ve been getting from the rest of the staff.
Also fantastic is Ben Mendelsohn. The Australian is yet to have is own starring role that can really showcase his talent, but he makes do with what he’s provided and in Starred Up he gives a ferociously intense performance as Love’s father. Neville is banged up for life, we are told, and Mendelsohn is great at showing what longtime incarceration can do to someone. He’s tough, clued-up but also vulnerable, and it’s his relationship with his son where we see the damaging effects of separation and loneliness.
Jonathan Asser’s script is based on his own time working as a voluntary therapist at HM Prison Wandsowrth (HM Prison Crumlin Road, Belfast and HM Prison Maze, Lisburn, the film’s shooting destinations, are also part of the prison service). Asser takes a conventional setting and strips away any dramatic superficiality that may have come from other writers attempting such a story. His own real-life experience undoubtedly influenced the Friend’s Baumer, and with his inside knowledge the tells a story that, every time, opts for authenticity and enlightenment rather than indulgent, ill-informed showboating.
Although Starred Up is a satisfying and emotional watch, the experience was fleeting for me. It’s an intelligent look at the efficacy of incarceration, but I only found the characters compelling, not relatable. Nonetheless, Starred Up is a tough watch and one that will provide discussion of prison systems and the detrimental effects of systemic isolation.