Film Review: Starred Up

Excellent showcase of director, star and writer talent.

Cinemas that go in for repertory programming may do well to consider hosting retrospectives of U.K. prison films released within the last 10 years. The past decade has seen the feature debut of 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and breakout vehicle for Michael Fassbender in the lockup tone poem Hunger; the movie that proved Tom Hardy was a star no matter at which stage you catch him shining, cooling or exploding quite brilliantly, Bronson; and now, Starred Up, a film that marries a hard-bitten sensibility with poetic direction seemingly without, as they say in the movie, “mugging off” to the sober realities of the British penal system.

To “mug off,” by the way, is to disrespect, and is among several slang terms tossed off in what many American viewers might find prohibitively foreign accents. Apart from the “kangas,” or prison officers, and an Oxford-educated therapist of sorts, Oliver (Rupert Friend), the subjects populating Starred Up are as they fill so many prisons the world over, undereducated and of thick regional tongues. The film’s title is itself a slang term, referring to the transference of a juvenile inmate to an adult facility. Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), an incredibly violent case with a correspondingly troubled past, is the 19-year-old juvenile whose transference supplies Starred Up with its premise. The facility to which he is admitted is no ordinary holding pen: It is the same prison in which Eric’s estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is also serving time.

Within hours of settling into his new home, Eric manages to rub the wrong way nefarious Governor Hayes (he of the Bad Guy Face, Sam Spruell), a poorer choice of introduction than he could at first know, as the incident brings him to the attention of oily coiffed and mannered convict Dennis, who lords over his fellow criminals. For reasons of his own, it is Dennis who charges Neville with keeping his boy in line, lest a more violent and irreversible fate next befall him.

Only Oliver appears a disinterested supporter of Eric. The patient “O” runs a group-therapy class with four or five convicts, sessions referred to simply as “group,” in which arguments are allowed to play out with little intervention from Oliver, who allows the inmates to check themselves and each other of their own accord. It is a testament to first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser that Oliver’s sympathetic, soft-spoken approach renders the actions of his group believable, rather than playing as contrived responses to the therapist’s evangelical politeness. But then, Asser, a former poet and performance artist, is familiar with these particular group dynamics: The writer worked as an Oliver-like prison therapist for 12 years.

The veracity of Asser’s script is complemented by the direction of David Mackenzie, who, after Starred Up’s first violent incident, punctuates his film’s tension with intermittent peaks while ever ascending toward its operatic climax. The filmmaker’s visual approach is less heightened than the aestheticism on display in McQueen’s Hunger, but the same notion of finding formal beauty in depictions of brutality still applies. Rather than acting as a stylistic buffer between audience and content, however, the director’s use of suffused light and diegetic sound are cinematic tools here effectively employed to engage one in the fictional—for all its credible starkness—world he has created. And what a populace he rules: “Frighteningly convincing” could be said equally of Mendelsohn and O’Connell, with the latter giving a sparsely worded performance that does not break one’s heart but, rather, suggesting as it does a state of chronic pain, makes one ache.

Governor Hayes and his newly appointed boss Christine (Sian Breckin) are a bit too one-dimensionally bad, a fact that almost spoils even as it provides the catalyst for Starred Up’s climax. But this nod to conventionality detracts in no significant way from what is otherwise an intense, troubling, and resonant contribution to a body and genre of work worthy of a wide viewership.

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