Barred in Britain: David Mackenzie's prison drama 'Starred Up' depicts a fraught father-son relationship


If you’re a sucker for father-son stories, as I am, you’ll probably blanch at Starred Up, as I did. There’s not a sentimental bone in its head, and there is much that is so unremittingly savage that anyone squeamish will have awfully heavy sledding.

That said, those game souls who ignore cautionary warnings will likely find a brilliant, visceral depiction of modern brute males at play, fortified by expert acting, directing and scripting (the latter informed with first-hand, close-up knowledge). The Tribeca Film release opens in New York on August 29 and nationally in September.

The father (Ben Mendelsohn) and son (Jack O’Connell) in this harrowing British drama are surnamed—with pointed irony—Love, a quality which pretty much evaporated when Neville the father and Eric the son were under the same roof and which is now inflamed when they’re confined to the same cellblock from which there’s no escape.

“Starred up” is the term for the prison process that permits this kind of combustible intermingling. “I wouldn’t say it’s a well-known phrase at all in England,” admits the film’s director, David Mackenzie. “Worse, when you say it to an American audience—because Americans soften their t’s to d’s—they think you’re talking about some new business that has started up on the Internet, so it’s all quite confusing.

“‘Starred up’ comes from a practice of taking young offenders—who usually go to adult jail at 21 in the U.K.—and putting them there two years earlier because they’re too much trouble within the Young Offenders system. A couple of asterisks are placed by the side of each name on the cell card at their door so the officers would know this person is under 21, and that, basically, is where the stars come from.”

Jonathan Asser’s hammer-hard original screenplay—his first—comes from the 12 years he put in as a voluntary therapist at HM Prison Wandsworth, struggling (more often than not uphill) to rehabilitate some of the country’s most vicious criminals.

His script found its way to Sigma Films, a company run by Mackenzie and Gillian Berrie, who saw the dramatic potential in it right away. “I thought there was a very compelling angle to it,” says Mackenzie, “to take a very, very hard subject and find ways to smuggle in some heart and soul, to bring out this father-son angle as well as the relationship between Eric and the guys in his group-therapy sessions. I felt very strongly that was a good combination of toughness, sensitivity and vulnerability.

“I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to explore the kind of father-son dynamic than this movie where these two reluctant guys have to confront each other and are very ill-equipped to do so. I felt like there’s something very interesting there.”

The father-son situation is fabricated here but isn’t far from the truth. Criminal behavior often runs in families, and if the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that the two would wind up in the same apple cart.

Asser’s frustrations as a prison therapist—being the man in the middle, caught between roiling convicts and rigid guards—come over loud and clear and credible in the earnest performance by Rupert Friend. The face most familiar to Americans in the cast (courtesy of the stateside “Homeland” series in which he plays Peter Quinn), Friend is the sole ray of light and hope in this grim setting, and he’s forced by both sides to flicker and fade. When he goes through the prison turnstile a last time, it clicks away like the Wheel of Misfortune, as it does at the end when another character returns to prison. “It existed at the location we used, and I felt it was quite resonant. Being able to repeat it at the end seemed like an ending that invited itself.”

Mackenzie cast his film carefully for character more than for box-office bait. “It’s not a cast with marquee names, but it’s a good cast,” he asserts. “Jack O’Connell has been around in the U.K. for a while. He’s got a good following from a couple of TV series in England, like ‘Skins.’ He’s already a movie star in the making, not just with this film but with the film Angelina Jolie directed him in last year, Unbroken.” That picture is expected to put him over the top internationally. (He almost made it to Hollywood in Beautiful Creatures and as Reed Richards in the Fantastic Four reboot.)

“Ben Mendelsohn is a very well-known, well-respected Australian actor,” notes Mackenzie. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked with an actor with more stagecraft than he has—also great spontaneity, fantastic instincts—really, a very exciting person to work with.” Gradually, Mendelsohn has been gaining international visibility via Quigley Down Under, The New World, Australia, Animal Kingdom and now this.

Starred Up won Mendelsohn the nod as Best Supporting Actor at the 2013 British Independent Film Awards, and Mackenzie’s direction and Asser’s script were similarly cited. There were also a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Friend and a Best Actor nomination for O’Connell, who did win the Dublin Film Critics Award.

Mackenzie, who has shown the picture at some 20 festivals from Telluride to Tribeca, is expecting some of the raves to translate into more awards. O’Connell, who has been accompanying him and the film, has, according to Mackenzie, been getting “quite a lot of amusement talking” about doing two nude scenes in a drafty Belfast prison in February. “I promise you I tried to get this film made last year in the summer,” adds the director, “but we had trouble financing so we had to wait.”

Impressively, the film was shot in only 24 days, and many of those were for stunts.

“Throughout my film career,” says Mackenzie, “I’ve been longing not to have to fake things in terms of photography, which we all have to do—and, obviously, there’s a tiny bit of that involved in this, but there’s as little as possible. When I first read the script and felt the authenticity of the atmosphere and the voice and the detail in it, I thought, ‘The location—either I have to cheat or I have to make it make sense.’”

Happily, he located an abandoned, intact jail in Belfast—HM Prison Crumlin Road—that had been put out of commission 15 years earlier. “It was actually kept in good condition because it’s a listed building. They had turned it into a museum and were doing tours while we were filming. It was troublesome to stop every five minutes.”

But that prison came with a big plus: “You’re in that environment, and that environment is representative of the real environment. It indeed used to be the real environment, and you can feel it. It helps everyone get into the spirit of it.”

It also helped Mackenzie keep the cast at a fever pitch of ferocity throughout the filming. “That’s where they need to be to keep each scene alive. You make sure everyone in the background feels a sense of tension running throughout it, exploring that dynamic, allowing the actors a lot of freedom to move within that space.

“We shot the film in sequential order, which was very useful for everyone to go on that journey. Some of those guys in the group therapy scenes—because we shot the film sequentially—had a chance to really evolve their characters. It makes the whole process not just easier but actually better, because you don’t have to worry about where you are within the story, just worry about being where you are, so you’re not having to do this in a jigsaw puzzle of emotions. For me as a director, I’m not worrying about what I’m coming against. It’s all there in the present tense."