Gritty British dramas have almost become a cliché but if Starred Up proves anything it’s that when done properly Brit-Grit packs one hell of a powerful punch.
Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is a violent teenager who is transferred to an adult prison from a juvenile facility. Upon arrival he makes his presence felt, stirring trouble and never pulling his punches. But Eric isn’t alone on his cell block, for his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is also inside and is desperate his son not follow in his footsteps. Pulling some strings, Neville gets Eric into a group run by voluntary therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend). While the violence in the prison never falters Eric begins to find solitude amidst his group, who all want to put an end to their anger issues.
Blistering, terrifying and never anything short of harrowing, Starred Up is quite simply a glorious, pent-up ball of hostile energy. Based on writer Jonathan Asser’s experiences of being a therapist in a British prison, the story rips along sucking you into Eric’s ferocious existence.
The prison is a toilet of a place; drab colours and claustrophobic confinement, it’s the kind of place a sound of mind individual might turn to the dark side. Put a group of angry criminals in and, like the film itself, it becomes a pressure cooker of ever-increasing moments of bone-snapping, blood-squirting horror. Add to this the intricate lengths to which inmates will go to harm one another and evade being pinned down by the guards (baby oil is the kind of inspired thinking that The A-Team would be proud of) and if Starred Up is anything close to the truth you suspect it may inspire a reformation of the correction system in the UK.
But amid all the violence and correctional facility corruption, Asser and director David Mackenzie inject just a hint of hope. This is no Shawshank Redemption, there’s no elaborate escape attempt but rather the hope that maybe, just maybe, by some miracle Eric could eventually be rehabilitated. Neville will push him to breaking-point, always failing to comprehend what it is to be a father other than the most crucial point; that he wants something better for his son than he was able to offer.
The performances are never anything short of staggering. Friend, leaving behind his normal pin-up good looks, is on career-best form, the kind of form that should see him elevated to roles suited to an actor of his talent. Mendelsohn, as has come to be expected of him, is a brooding often-explosive actor who brings an inch-perfect balance between caring for and hurting his on-screen son. Above all else though Starred Up cements Jack O’Connell as one of Britain’s most red-hot acting talents. His Eric is like a mini Hulk, erupting in a red-mist of foul language and swaggering, fist-clenching rage. But as the story progresses so we see the fear in Eric, O’Connell allowing a more human side to gradually and subtly creep into his performance. It’s the kind of performance that will undoubtedly see O’Connell marked out not as a rising star but a shooting one.
Actor Toby Stephens recently commented that when he reads British scripts his heart ‘sinks’, on the evidence of Starred Up he’s reading the wrong ones. Starred Up by name, Starred Up by nature.