Starred Up - Review
Review by Rob Carnevale
SUPERLATIVES abound for David Mackenzie’s brutally intense prison drama Starred Up.
Undoubtedly one of the best films in its genre, as well as a surefire contender for one of the films of 2014, this grips like a vice throughout and is guaranteed to leave you feeling more than a little drained.
Jack O’Connell (formerly of Skins fame) stars as violent teen prisoner Eric, who is sent to adult prison a year early for being deemed too dangerous for his young offenders’ institute. But the prison in question also happens to be home to his estranged dad Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a lifer, who is tasked with sorting out his wayward attitude or risk losing him forever – either to fellow inmates or the prison’s corrupt hierarchy.
Assisting in his own way, meanwhile, is Oliver (Rupert Friend), a prison counselor whose group therapy sessions offer Eric the chance to vent his frustrations and find some common ground with his fellow inmates. The question lingers, however, as to whether Eric can keep his temper in check.
Based on a script by former prison therapist Jonathan Asser, Starred Up is a raw, gritty and intelligent thriller that refuses to pull any punches dramatically while posing some relevant questions about the way in which we observe and treat our prisoners.
It also serves as an intense father-son relationship movie and a coming-of-age tale as Eric learns to navigate his way through the prison system with intelligence to match his brawn.
The performances are, without exception, first rate. O’Connell is a firecracker as Eric… a volatile, reactive and spiky character who has been forced to learn life’s lessons the hard way. And yet there is something worth fighting for, a humanity locked up within, for those willing to take the time to find it.
In that regard, Friend’s Oliver is a vital lifeline in Eric’s therapy and he fulfils that responsibility in absorbing fashion… fighting the system in his own way and providing a buffer between Eric and those who would do him harm.
And Mendelsohn is equally enigmatic as Neville, who must wrestle with his own shortcomings as a father and a man – someone who wants to extend paternal support but who is also mindful of his own standing within the prison and how it might suffer if he shows compassion or steps out of line. He has his own secrets to hide.
Mackenzie’s direction, meanwhile, is first-rate… sparse (there’s no soundtrack) and almost documentary-like, he creates a fly-on-the-wall style scenario in which you almost feel like an insider yourself. The sense of peril is pronounced, as is the harsh reality of prison existence and the frustrations felt by both sides (as well as the potential abuses of power).
What’s more, Mackenzie gets a lot of genre staples across without pandering to them. So, while there are obligatory scenes, they feel fresh and more genuine rather than contrived. Come the excruciatingly tense finale, you’ll be battling to catch your breath.
Starred Up is therefore a virtuoso piece of work from everyone involved. It announces O’Connell as a young leading man of shimmering intensity, confirms Friend’s progression from romantic co-lead actor to versatile character actor (following his sterling work in TV’s Homeland) and Mendelsohn as another of Australia’s foremost character actors. Mackenzie, meanwhile, has delivered his finest work to date.
Starred Up is a prison movie not to be missed.
Running time: 106mins
UK Release Date: March 21, 2014