Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Starred Up (Movie Review)

By Freda Cooper 18.03.2014

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action!

Starred Up (UK Rating: 18)

It's probably apocryphal, but the story was that Porridge wasn't allowed to be shown on TV in UK prisons because it was too realistic. By comparison to Starred Up, though - the first film from British director David Mackenzie - the world inhabited by Messrs Fletcher and McKay was as cosy as a onesie. Due out in the UK on 21st March, Starred Up gets the Lights, Camera, Action! treatment as Freda reviews.

"Starred up," in prison parlance, describes an inmate who has transferred early from a young offenders' institution to an adult prison because of their uncontrollable behaviour. That's exactly what happens to Eric (Jack O'Connell), who at just 19 arrives with a reputation as trouble. He doesn't get off to a good start, attacking another prisoner and getting on the wrong side of the main drug dealer. Worse still, one of the senior inmates happens to be his father who, despite wanting to protect his son, continually stands in the way of him making any progress.

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Starred Up (Movie Review)

Eric's default setting is violence: don't know, don't understand, hit out. The sad thing is that he's also intelligent and this, combined with the violence and his inner anger, is a lethal combination. The prison's volunteer psychotherapist, Oliver (Rupert Friend) recognises this intelligence has been channelled in a wholly negative way and introduces him to his small talking therapy group. Again, it doesn't get off to a good start, but Oliver persists and Eric finds he's experiencing a different side of life - honesty, encouragement and caring.

However, he faces another barrier, and one that's been there all his life - his father, Nev (Ben Mendelsohn). He's at the root of Eric's anger and doesn't want his son to follow in his footsteps, but he knows nothing but bullying, intimidation and violence as means of persuasion. The vicious cycle continues until they eventually fight each other. It's distressing to watch, but it turns out to be the start of a fundamental change in their relationship, to the extent that Nev saves his son's life.

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Starred Up (Movie Review)

The film reeks of authenticity, right down to the bleach used by the cleaner to mop the floors. The viewer can almost smell it and the cleaner is always there, a constant reminder of the drab daily monotony of prison life. It was filmed on location in Longkesh and Crumlin Road and the screenplay from newcomer Jonathan Asser is based on his experiences of working with inmates at Wandsworth Prison. The language is deliberately harsh and the slamming doors and jangling keys even more so.

It isn't just the prisoners who are brutalised by the regime, either, as the officers are behind bars as well and just as institutionalised: if they didn't wear uniforms, their keys would be the only thing distinguishing them from the inmates.

Based on this performance, Jack O'Connell's career could easily be 'starred up' to the big league. He's commanding and powerful as Eric, full of anger but with a level of intelligence that encourages sympathy and cautious optimism. He's already baring his pectorals to the cinema-going public in 300: Rise of an Empire and is due to be seen again at the end of the year in Angelina Jolie's directorial debut, Unbroken. He's keeping good company! Ben Mendelsohn is equally impressive as Nev, who knows he has little hope of a better life and doesn't know how to prevent his son going down the same road.

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Starred Up (Movie Review)

[score=8]Offering an uncompromising look at the effect at prison life and stringent regimes, Starred Up has no easy answers, is as relentless as a prison sentence and attacks the senses with harsh noise and violence. Nor does it let the audience off the hook for any of its 106 minutes. Whether it will suffer a similar fate in prisons as Porridge remains to be seen.

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