I was lucky enough to see a preview of Starred Up this morning at my local Picturehouse, and am I ever glad I did? My mind has been turning it over all day, replaying scenes and mentally examining it piece by piece, and I’m sure I’ll still be thinking about for days to come.
Now if, like me, you’re not au fait with prison lingo, it might help to know that the term ‘starred up’ refers to young offenders whose behaviour is so violent and unmanageable that they’re transferred to adult prisons. The ‘starred up’ kid here (and he is a kid), is Eric Love, a catastrophically violent 19-year-old. After the humiliating strip search at the opening of the film, Eric’s first act as an inmate of the adult prison is to create a makeshift weapon from a toothbrush and a disposable razor. He’s very resourceful, you’ve got to give him that.
This pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the film, so if you’ve no stomach for violence, turn back now.
You’re still with me? OK then… Now, to say ‘Eric has some serious anger management issues is an understatement’ would itself be a massive understatement. The boy is like a caged animal, reacting at the slightest threat or provocation, real or imagined. His self-preservation instincts are second to none, and as the film goes on, and we learn a little more about him (just a little, mind you, Starred Up never gives much away) we can begin to understand why. The boy’s had a bloody hard life.
Perhaps the best example of this is the presence of his dad in the same prison, on the same wing. He’s one of the resident hard-cases and, although his long-term incarceration has left him estranged from his son, he tries, in his own bungling way, to build a bond with Eric, and to get him to behave. For Eric’s own safety. You see, everyone on the wing wants a quiet life and Eric is a disruption, to say the least. His outbursts put him at risk. It’s this burgeoning father-son relationship that provides depth to what could’ve ended up being a film purely about prison violence, even if it seems somewhat unlikely.
Building up the layers of the emotional onion further still is the volunteer therapist, Oliver. He runs group sessions with the inmates, and takes Eric on, believing he can help the boy change. I won’t say whether Oliver gets through to Eric or not, because I want you to find out for yourself.
I left the darkened cinema at lunc-time, stumbling out onto the busy pavement, the sun in my eyes, my mind whirring and trying to make sense of the preceding hour and forty minutes. Starred Up is a truly brutal, unsettling and almost unbearably tense piece of film-making. It is claustrophobic, gritty, grimy and shocking, and at times its surprisingly funny.
What it occasionally lacks in believability it more than makes up for with its intense performances. Ben Mendelsohn is outstanding as Eric’s dad, managing to be at once terrifying (see Animal Kingdom) and sympathetic. The once excellent Homeland’s Rupert Friend does a fine job as Oliver, even though his character is somewhat underdeveloped. There’s also a great cast of supporting characters, namely Eric’s fellow group members.
This is Jack O’Connell’s film, though. He absolutely shines as Eric. I simply can’t praise the lad highly enough. He brings a childlike vulnerability to an otherwise terrifying character, he makes you believe Eric’s story and perhaps most surprisingly, most impressively, he makes you want the kid to be OK. In spite of his flaws, his temper, his crimes and well, his bad attitude, by the time the fat lady was ready to sing, I was genuinely hoping that Eric would have some kind of happy ending. And when you see all the awful things you see here, that really is no mean feat.