2014 / Director. David MacKenzie.
Review by Glenn Cochrane.
The most effective prison films are generally the most brutal ones. There’s no shortage of entries into the genre but those with the most impact tend to stick with you for years. It’s been over a decade(s) and I still can’t shake EVERYNIGHT EVERYNIGHT, CHOPPER and GHOSTS OF THE CIVIL DEAD from my mind (coincidently all Aussie films).
STARRED UP is a stark, brutal and confronting British film about the transition of a young inmate from a juvenile institution to the savage confines of an adult prison. We are introduced Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) as he steps off the bus and is escorted into the maximum-security fortress. He is stripped, deprived of all dignity and given his own cell after being deemed a high-risk inmate. Thrown into the general population he is forced to demonstrate his resilience with a violent display of strength. Compounding his initiation is the fact that his father (Ben Mendelsohn) is on the same wing, casting an overprotective eye.
This is a stunning film, shot meticulously and directed with precision. Director David Mackenzie (YOUNG ADAM, HALLAM FOE and PERFECT SENSE) took advantage of a real prison and presents a realistic and uncompromising atmosphere. I am uncertain whether the prison was populated with real inmates at the time but it is very likely to have been. Jack O’Connell leads the charge with a performance that transcends the film. With his own troubled past, he has tapped into a lifestyle that few of us can comprehend. His portrayal of Eric is as astonishing as it is terrifying. Ben Mendelsohn is also excellent as the uneducated and misguided father and Rupert Friend is particularly effective as the prison councillor. With these three performances combined with excellent supporting from all other players, the film serves as a portrait of life that none of us ever want to come close to.
The film is violent and supremely explicit. The camera rarely flinches from the brutality and the language coming from the character’s mouths would have been enough to traumatise the classification board. It never demands your sympathy for these people but it does ask you to reflect on the nature of incarceration and rehabilitation. A judgemental eye is certainly cast at the system itself but never, for a moment, does the film excuse the criminal figures.