The young male inmate rallying against the system is hardly untapped territory in film, but with Starred Up (2013) writer Jonathan Asser and director David Mackenzie have succeeded in putting a fresh spin on that schema, bolstered further by a powerhouse performance from Skins graduate Jack O’Connell. It’s no surprise that the likes of Tom Hardy (Bronson) and Ray Winstone (Scum) have used the sub-genre in the past as means of launching their big screen careers. It’s the kind of milieu which seems primed to showcase an actor’s abilities and O’Connell more than rises to the challenge here. For the first ten minutes our lead doesn’t even utter a word, yet somehow completely commands the screen.
O’Connell plays Eric Love, a volatile and unpredictable young offender who has gained notoriety by being “starred up” (i.e. prematurely transferred) to an adult prison. Almost immediately he becomes a target and sends the inner criminal ringleader into a spin. Eric’s father and lifer Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) also resides in the same prison and out of strained paternal love (and pressure from above) he’s determined to keep his son on the straight and narrow. It isn’t an easy task. Love Jr. is the product of a broken home and abuse in care, and even his supportive mentor (an appealing turn from Rupert Friend) has his work cut out. Mackenzie has an eclectic track record, but here he’s once again nailed the societal outsider at odds with all around him as seen previously in Young Adam and Hallam Foe.
To do this, Mackenzie utilises a stripped-down and sparse directorial style (there’s a complete absence of non-diegetic sound, for instance). Whilst it doesn’t quite reach the docu-realist heights of Alan Clarke, the director is still able to etch out a very credible and authentic prison environment. He jettisons most of the clichés – save for the boo-hiss warden (Sam Spruell) – and it’s refreshing to see a prison drama which doesn’t choose to wallow in the dark depths of unremitting bleakness. O’Connell offers glimmers of humanity under his raging exterior and Mendelsohn’s chameleon-like qualities get pushed to the fore once again; he’s also utterly mesmerising. The finale, whilst gripping, lumbers into the kind of conventional dramatic fare the film so strenuously avoids until that point, but this is a minor quibble. Starred Up is a sterling effort by all involved, and thoroughly deserves a place within the canon of great British prison dramas.