Referring to youth offenders sent to adult prisons because of their violent behaviour, Starred Up sounds like another gritty prison drama, as depressingly abundant in British cinema as the gritty gang-related flicks set on sink estates in the capital. In fact, Young Adam director David Mackenzie and debut screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s pressure cooker of incarcerated menace actually tries for a different angle: exploring the miserable fallout of domestic violence on children.
Troubled and angry teenager Eric (Jack O’Connell) is sent down into the bowels of a tough adult prison where every inmate is a potential target of developing an ingrained prison mentality. His estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is also a long-serving inmate detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. What seems like a reassuring prospect for the youngster at risk is far from it. It’s only with the intervention of Oliver (Rupert Friend), a volunteer therapist passionate about addressing Eric’s unruly behaviour that he stands a glimmer of a chance. However, with the penal system and its staff desperate to write Eric off and label him, he is subsequently exposed to a greater threat closer to home.
However well Asser’s background working in Wandsworth prison serves him here, making for a totally authentic environment, there is still a cynical element to the characterisation in the film that such a genre cannot shake off, peppered with the typical full-on expletives you would come to expect. In fact, the prison slang takes adjusting to in parts, acting both a plus and a minus in our understanding of prison existence. That said the level of violent intent is not in the dialogue but the body language – this is a very physical film, and the filmmakers keep matters tightly wound to breaking point.
Central to this are some outstanding performances from O’Connell and Mendelson, both hugely exciting actors in British cinema today. The father-son friction is only as successful as this pair makes it when in face-to-face confrontation and it’s utterly electrifying to witness. The frustrations both experience really resonate as much as our own frustration with the poor communication their familiar bond suffers from. It’s always touch-and-go and highly charged, even when there is a glimmer of hope that’s subsequently shattered.
Mackenzie’s commendable direction keeps things tight and super claustrophobic, resulting in the viewer often wanting out of Oliver’s brick-walled therapy room, say, but being just as much a prisoner within the four walls when male egos collide. Friend is also exceptional in this, balancing the right amount of teetering control with a suggested sinister side and background as the embattled ‘posh toff’ therapist. His frustrations are also completely comprehensible, resulting in actions anyone would forgive in the circumstances. In fact, the lack of coherent communication is what ironically drives this drama as actions need to speak louder than words but regrettably so.
It’s a very worthy start to Asser’s budding film career, thankfully cultivated by Mackenzie’s talent, resulting in an explosive and criminally tragic watch that makes you ultimately disappointed that history is allowed to constantly repeat itself.