Review: Starred Up (2014)

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Director: David Mackenzie
Screenwriter: Jonathan Asser
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Rupert Friend, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Spruell, Anthony Welsh, David Ajala, Peter Ferdinando & Sian Breckin
Runtime: 106 min // Certificate: 18

It ends with an uncomfortable shot of a revolving door – the perfect visual representation of the British prison system. It’s an in-out, in-out regime where rehabilitation fails either because it is designed to do so or because its purpose is catastrophically misunderstood. In an unsustainable and brutalised system in which education is now considered a privilege and lifelong institutionalisation is seen as a cure to rather than a symptom of the impossibly complicated, ingrained problems that plague our society, is it any wonder that Starred Up – David Mackenzie’s devastating new prison drama – feels so startlingly authentic?

Set solely within the confines of a high security prison, the film follows Eric Love (O’Connell), a 19 year old who has been “starred up” (transferred from a young offender institution to an adult prison), as he learns to deal with his new surroundings. A deeply damaged and often violent individual, Eric reacts negatively to almost all attempts to control him. His desperate situation is further exacerbated when he is incarcerated on the same wing as his estranged Father, Neville (Mendelsohn), who is inside for murder. With a lot of painful history between them, the two men come to blows in a chilling fashion as Neville attempts to protect Eric from the “screws”, the other prisoners and, most crucially, himself.

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In the tradition of all great British drama, Starred Up is an unapologetically raw bit of cinema that burns with a foreboding and gritty realism from start to finish. It drags you into a hidden and disturbing World you think you won’t recognise and then shows you just how familiar it all is. In fact, the nervous titters from a certain subsection of the audience whenever violence was threatened or discussed, nudity was shown or swear words were used probably say more than any review ever can. Mackenzie put them all on edge; he was under their skin, armed with a razor blade, slicing away at their preconceived notions and their emotional resolve, and they simply didn’t know how to react. It is perhaps most telling that while suggestions of violence often raised an uneasy laugh or two, the silence whenever it was shown was absolutely deafening.

Of course, the combination of stark realism and intense brutality is truly affecting, and Mackenzie’s direction in this respect is near-perfect. He portrays the violence through the prism of a man who genuinely understands it; he doesn’t judge, nor does he excuse, the viciousness of the system or the people in it, but he creates an atmosphere that is at once toxic and all-consuming. You can’t help but be engrossed in the characters, their stories or their situation, despite the fact it’s all so horrifying. The violence is rough, tough and nasty, though it’s never sensational or over-played. Mackenzie reins himself in when necessary, in order to allow the audience to take a glimpse – however briefly – into the minds of the deeply complex individuals who inhabit the story. In fact, it is arguably in those silent moments, when twitches and glances do most of the talking, that the film is at its most gripping.

It is in these “deeply complex individuals” that the film makes its most apposite mark. Though they’re all intricately written and fully-fleshed characters, we’re only granted the most ambiguous glimpses into their back stories. Our sympathies are tested, our tolerances are pushed, yet we feel uncomfortable judging them because while we’re starkly aware of their current situation, we know little else about them. It’s a compelling contradiction that allows the audience to invest in, and to some extent empathise with, these individuals yet, at the same time, one that pushes us to actively maintain a safe distance. Over the course of its runtime, it develops into a film in which unsympathetic characters are made sympathetic by virtue of they’re so relatable. They’re like extreme versions of people we might well know – perhaps even exaggerated versions of ourselves – yet they’re also unfailingly relatable, representing as they do a certain constituency that has long been written off as irredeemable.

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Now, with films like this it doesn’t matter how realistic all the individual elements are if the stars don’t convince; one false move and the whole difficult enterprise can fall apart in an instant. Thankfully, Starred Up is held together by a collection of magnificent performances. O’Connell – best known as Cook in the teenage drama Skins – puts in a truly star-making turn as Eric, demonstrating an incredible ability to locate the shattering frailty beneath his character’s confident persona, while Mendelsohn delivers a powerhouse performance in what is perhaps the film’s most difficult role. If I were to make one complaint it’d be that Sam Spruell’s portrayal of the sociopathic Governor is a bit one-note but that’s a relatively minor distraction in a film that is consistently engaging and horrifying.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Starred Up is up there with the greatest prison dramas ever made. It’s a richly rewarding watch but one that – thanks to its ultra-realism – is often difficult to stomach. Asser and Mackenzie attack a system that is all but irreparably damaged in scathing fashion, yet they do so not with political diatribes but with a genuine, authentic story. The focus isn’t on the criminal justice system so much as it’s on the collapse of a Father-son relationship, though this element of the plot then acts as the perfect medium through which the film’s deeper societal issues can be properly explored.

If you like your films harsh but honest, with not a hint of inauthentic melodrama in sight, Starred Up is a must-watch. It is, without question, the film of the year so far and, in my opinion, it’ll take a hell of a lot to beat it because it’s stunning in practically every way.