Synopsis: A troubled and explosively violent teenager is transferred to adult prison where he finally meets his match – a man who also happens to be his father
It’s fair to say that Starred Up is not for the easily offended or faint of heart. Also definitely not for anyone about to go to the big house, although should be watched by anyone thinking about imminently committing an act that might lead to them going there.
David MacKenzie’s brutal and forceful British drama plays somewhere between Dead Poet’s Society and Oz, injecting every scene with a level of testosterone you could swim through if you were so inclined. Unlike so many other “gritty” British dramas in recent years there is nothing glossy or in anyway glamorous about the crumbling and corrupted London prison that teenage sociopath Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) finds himself transferred to after he is determined too violent for the Young Offenders Prison. It should be an easy ride given that his equally sociopathic dad Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is also banged up with him and eager to show him the ropes. It is a classic story of the old bull trying to stop the young calf from acting without thinking…..except this calf has a trigger temper and a shiv made from a razor blade melted into a toothbrush. Things don’t quite work out as Eric would like as he soon finds out the rules are different in big boy prison. More importantly his Dad can’t always be there to help him out. Eventually the patriarchal void is filled in the shape of pseudo-therapist/social worker Oliver (Rupert Friend), a man who seems to have almost as many issues as the men he tries to counsel through their anger issues.
At the center of it all is a potentially career making performance from Jack O’Connell as the explosive Eric, a boy who would count to 10 if you asked him to but the last 7 would be the number of times the heel of his shoe made contact with your temple lobe. McKenzie holds no punches in the use of language, violence or sexuality and it is as raw and visceral a portrayal of prison life as I can remember seeing since HBOs groundbreaking series. The main issue is that while it feels very worthy in it’s truthful portrayal of the base social structures of the prison system, everyone is either entirely unlikeable or simply too pathetic to care about. In some regards all three male leads are anti-heroes; Neville is a try hard Dad whose best is just really shit; Eric as a consequence may be psychopathic but it’s only because he went into care at a really young age and killed a pedeophile, so ultimately he’s almost a hero; and Oliver wants to reform the world but only to work through his own issues. As a result any redeeming qualities are drowned out in a sea of c-bombs and shivs.
Which means come the final closing scene it very difficult to feel like you’ve done anything other than go through a rather harrowing prison beating just to find out everyone is still not worthy of your love.
Conclusion: A very earnest and visceral portrayal of prison life with some interesting questions about what makes angry young men so very angry indeed. Unfortunately the noise of it’s honesty drowns out the nuances of the character, which given their unlikeable nature makes it difficult to want any good to come for them.
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend