Starred Up is a British prison drama directed by David Mackenzie with a screenplay by Jonathan Asser. The film follows 19-year-old Eric (Jack O’Connell), a violent criminal who has recently been “starred up,” a phrase that refers to early transfers of juvenile criminals from Her Majesty’s Young Offender Institution to an adult prison. Eric quickly makes enemies within his new confines, and his circumstances are further complicated by the fact that his cell is in the same wing as his estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). The only hope Eric has to turn his life around is in the form of a volunteer psychotherapist who runs an anger management class for inmates. Although this class offers him a new path, Eric is still torn between the prison’s corruption and politics, and Starred Up chronicles his fight for his life.
It is no secret that I am an avid fan of British dramas. There is something so raw and honest about cinema across the pond, and in Starred Up, the unabashed, candid storytelling technique is at its finest. I was not familiar with director David Mackenzie previously, but from this film alone, it is clearly evident that the man can direct with self-assurance and shamelessness. Although he does a spectacular job in his role as director, I am more smitten with the work of the film’s cinematographer and screenwriter. I am familiar with Michael McDonough’s cinematography, as he performed the same role on one of my favorite films from 2010, Winter’s Bone (Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout performance). In Starred Up, like in Winter’s Bone, the photography is incredibly untreated and unpretentious, a masterful technique for a pragmatic drama such as this. The prison appears small (and the cells even smaller), and McDonough captures these packed and pinched physical aspects of the environment remarkably. Despite the claustrophobic milieu, the characters still have plenty of room to breathe and interact on camera, and this is the result of adroit cinematography.
In a film with great direction and skilled cinematography, the standout behind-the-scenes feature is Jonathan Asser’s screenplay. Asser brought his real-life experiences to this script, having himself volunteered as a psychotherapist at Wandsworth in Southwest London (the largest adult-male prison in Her Majesty’s Prison Service); therefore, Asser’s debut screenplay is packed with first-hand observation of the nuances and complexities of these violent, but vulnerable prisoners. If anything in this film is brutally straightforward, it is Asser’s tale of prison life in Britain.
There are many aspects of the prison life in Britain that are examined in Starred Up, but the most distinctive and melodramatic (but not heavy-handedly) feature of the film is the exploration of the strained relationship between a father and his son. This plot point truly emanates the old adage of the apple not falling far from the tree—this angle allows Starred Up to investigate the inner workings of an all-too-familiar product of a father’s crimes being repeated by his progeny. This storytelling contrivance is expounded upon by means of two methodically audacious acting performances, provided by Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn. O’Connell, who in late 2014 became known to American audiences as the lead actor in Angelina Jolie’s WWII biopic Unbroken, brilliantly portrays Eric as a troubled, aggressive youth following in his father’s unlawful footsteps. In the early scenes of Eric being processed and those of his initial interactions with his fellow inmates, O’Connell fiercely evokes Eric’s badass attitude—he is an arrogant punk, but he backs it up, having a penchant for defending himself viciously. But once Eric starts attending the anger management classes, the therapist starts to—piece by piece—crack open Eric’s hidden vulnerabilities. The root of those weaknesses: Eric’s father Neville. Mendelsohn portrays Neville in the scratchiest and abrasive manner possible, and this is the perfect manifestation of a man who has lived the hardest of lives. Given Neville’s high ranking within the prison’s gang politics, he is in a much more powerful position than his son. And despite that Eric does not initially feel intimidated by his father, that inherent familial power struggle is seemingly behind Eric’s susceptibilities. This completely distorted relationship between Eric and Neville gives both actors plenty to work with from an emotional standpoint, and they execute their respective roles with ease.
I wish this movie could have reached a broader audience in America because it is the kind of film that deserves universal acclaim from the masses. In fact, both O’Connell and Mendelsohn’s performances are more worthy of Oscar recognition than some of the actual nominees in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories. Starred Up is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, so if you have this service, utilize it for this movie—it is definitely worth it!! Starred Up is unrated.
Starred Up trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4iseCjFnWk
Academy Award nominations for Starred Up:
Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2014:
- The Theory of Everything
- Blue Ruin
- American Sniper
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Gone Girl
- The Lego Movie