“Starred Up means you're leader.”
Starred Up is unquestionably the best UK film of the year. It’s no surprise because the best prison dramas that have come out over recent years come from Europe (think Bronson, Hunger, and A Prophet). What surprised me the most about Starred Up is that the humanity of these prisoners is never lost. These are guys who do questionable things and constantly have anger issues, but somehow as an audience we are still drawn to them and care for them. It isn’t something easy to achieve but thanks to David Mackenzie’s solid direction and Jonathan Asser’s brilliant and realistic script we get an authentic prison drama with characters we can engage with and are worth investing in. Asser actually based the script on his personal experience when he worked as a voluntary therapist at a prison. It really comes through in the script because you have a sense that he sees these prisoners as actual human beings and not just stereotypical prisoners which we sometimes get from movies. He raises some important issues that most prison movies fail to do so and which concern him. There are two ways we can view prisons: as a place where we can set apart the criminals and keep them away from society or as a place where we send these criminals to be rehabilitated. He firmly believes in the second cause and that is why he includes a voluntary therapist in this film that is trying to rehabilitate some of these prisoners. These are issues that aren’t usually raised in films of this genre, but through this authentic portrayal of life behind bars we get a sense of it. That is why Asser is so concerned with humanizing the main character, Eric Love, played brilliantly by Jack O’Connell (Unbroken), who has just been sent to prison after spending years in juvenile institutions for his violent behavior. He’s sent to the same prison where his father (played by Ben Mendelsohn) has been spending most of his life. Their hurtful relationship gives us a glimpse of why Eric behaves the way he does and it is ultimately what engages the audience with his character. However my favorite aspect of the film is the relationship he shares with the therapist (Rupert Friend) who is trying to help with his violent nature. The film is gritty and it also has a lot going on with the rest of the prisoners and guards as well. As opposed to what we feel for the prisoners, the guards don’t really view their humanity. Starred Up succeeds as an authentic portrayal inside a prison.
This is only the second time I have seen a film directed by David Mackenzie and he is back on my radar now. I had seen Spread, starring Ashton Kutcher, and I really disliked that movie. This film felt like it was directed by a completely different person. A lot of the credit has to be given to the screenwriter for writing such a compelling prison drama with scenes that you are completely invested in and have you at the edge of your seat. But of course one can’t leave out the brilliant performance from Jack O’Connell who delivers one of the most memorable prisoner characters I’ve seen. His physical performance is just inspiring. There are a number of secondary characters that will also be remembered. Ben Mendelsohn as Eric’s father is great and so is Friend as the therapist. I enjoyed many of the interactions Eric had with them and with some of his inmates. There are several things going on as we sort of get a slice of life of these prisoners life. I may have been describing this film mostly as a drama, but believe me there are several moments of incredible tension and gritty violence. It balances these themes very well and makes for a compelling watch.