Eric (Jack O’Connell) is transferred from juvenile prison to adult jail. Considered extremely dangerous, Eric immediately sets out to protect himself in his new environment. Sharing a wing with his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) only seems to make matters worse for Eric, and it is only through the intervention of therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend) that things start to change for the young inmate.
Although he may be best known to some as Cook from Skins, Jack O’Connell has made himself a name by playing antisocial and violent young men – Yeah all right, Cook wasn’t exactly a saint either – and this role as Eric gives O’Connell the chance to combine all of his previous experience to create a truly remarkable young man. We never know why Eric has been incarcerated, but it certainly wasn’t for stealing sweets; Eric is a damaged young man whose instinct is for violence. O’Connell makes the character truly terrifying at times, but the genius of the performance is when Eric’s humanity shines through the cracks.
Ben Mendelsohn plays another terrifying human being; it is easy to see why Neville was locked up, even though we don’t know exactly for what. Again, Mendelsohn allows tenderness to shine through in Neville, but it is obvious that the character regards this to be a flaw. Rupert Friend rounds out the central trio of characters as a volunteer therapist from a privileged background and his own motivations for doing what he does. Friend makes Oliver a strong yet gentle character and provides relief not only for Eric, but for the audience as well.
Starred Up is screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s debut project, and his experience as a psychotherapist in one of the UK’s biggest prisons utterly informs the film. Asser not only observes the relationships between individuals and gangs behind bars, but also the alliances that form when a new person is introduced to the mix. The dialogue feels authentic, and the fluid, almost rambling, style of the script allows the film to develop slowly before thundering into action.
Director David Mackenzie has a skill for observing large stories in small spaces, his work on Perfect Sense and Young Adam spring to mind, and like his pervious work, Starred Up is an unflinching examination of an often-ignored section of society. Mackenzie keeps tensions running high, making Starred Up feel claustrophobic and intense. This is a world where the usual rules of engaging with people don’t apply, and Mackenzie makes sure that the viewer is all too aware of this.
Starred Up is an acutely observed examination of the relationships between three men. History repeats itself as power struggles and violence dominate the film. Mackenzie’s direction is tight and engaging, Asser’s screenplay allows language to be as important as body language and O’Connell makes a horrifying character one who the audience can identify with. No mean feat. Starred Up is not exactly a pleasant watch, but it is an utterly rewarding one.