Prison sucks. There’s no disputing that. Being behind bars is probably hell on Earth for many people who’ve been caught breaking the law. Being caged like an animal can be truly taxing on one’s psyche and whoever does the crime must certainly do the time. The latest British prison drama Starred Up is the perfect representation of what’s it like to be in the clink and the results are gritty, brutal, and absolutely sensational.
The term “starred up” actually means a young prisoner who transitions to adult prison and the film’s main character Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is one such unfortunate fellow. He is a 19 year-old delinquent with a very violent side, adjusting to life behind bars, and trying to make sense of things. He randomly lashes out at other prisoners and seems to hate everyone and everything. Things get complicated when he encounters his estranged father Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn), who is also a prisoner and lives in a cell just above Eric’s. The father-son relationship is tested as both men struggle to keep their sanity and ensure their physical survival within the prison walls.
Based on screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s real-life experiences working as a volunteer therapist at a British prison, Starred Up is a film experience unlike any other. It was filmed in actual former prisons in Northern Island and the script reflected Asser’s time spent trying to counsel and guide troubled young men in an anger management group. Actor Rupert Friend actually played the prison therapist Oliver Baumer, who is loosely based on Asser. His mission in the film is to help those who need and want help including but not limited to Eric Love.
Director David Mackenzie is a genius with a camera. With what appears to be a shaky handheld camera shooting the claustrophobic scenes, each moment feels like it’s part of an elaborate documentary. The scenes of violence are shot in a way that feels like they are actually happening. O’Connell’s dedication to the role, physically and mentally, is definitely something to marvel at. Mendelsohn’s performance is also rather powerful as the wiser, more experienced prisoner and patriarch to Eric. Their chemistry is electric and certainly one of the best prison relationships ever caught on film.
Starred Up is a wonder, a tense, painful, and brilliant look at the life of a young prisoner. All of the actors hit their mark and they fully submerge themselves in their prospective roles. The only complaint: the English and Irish accents can sometimes be a bit difficult to decipher. Eric and the other prisoners all speak with that heavy brogue that can be tough to understand but this is a minor flaw and doesn’t impact the greatness of the film. Prison dramas are usually pretty predicable. They contain stereotyped tough guys and preachy malarkey involving redemption and hope. While Starred Up does dabble in redemption, it is more of a tale of survival and acceptance, fatherly love, and unity. This is one of the strongest films of the year, a scathing look at prison life and the humanity contained within its walls.