Eric (Jack O’Connell) is transferred from a young offenders institution to adult prison, and while he feels as if he can be a king in this new place, it soon becomes clear that he’s been thrust somewhere far more brutal and dangerous than he’s used to. The young man knows that his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is in the prison, and is hoping for a reunion.
It’s an awkward reunion though, as while Nev is keen to protect his boy, he is a violent, dangerous man and the two have very little common ground, especially due to the anger Eric barely seems to realise he harbours against his father.
The prison regime seems to have already given up on Eric, with officers already talking about the need to simply ‘warehouse’ the unpredictable boy for the rest of his life. However Oliver (Rupert Friend) sees hope and wants him in his prison rehabilitation group. Some of the officers see Oliver’s attempt to help the prisoners as a dangerous threat to the status quo, and are planning ways to ensure it fails. However it may be Eric’s only hope to turn his life around, not just so that one day he could become a productive member of society, but simply so that he can survive prison, where the threat doesn’t just come from other prisoners but from the guards too.
Starred Up was released in UK cinemas this year to almost universal acclaim, and there is indeed a lot to praise. The performances from O’Connell and Mendelsohn are absolutely belters. Both of them completely inhabit their desperate and dangerous characters, sucking you into their world so that even though they are both definitely wrong’uns, you feel involved with their lives and hope they can change things.
Likewise as a piece of drama it’s tense and dramatic. There’s never a point where you aren’t engrossed in this brutal, grim and endlessly volatile world. It is an excellent piece of filmmaking that will keep your heart in your mouth and make you question the mentality of incarceration.
It also has a thankfully undramatic take on prison homosexuality. There’s a tendency in films to treat anything gay in prison as being evidence of the degradation of being incarcerated, as if two men having sexual contact intrinsically demeans at least one of them. However Starred Up realises it can simply be about human connection, even amongst those who on the outside would be straight. It may be a surprise when it’s discovered, but the film certainly doesn’t judge it.
My only gripe is with one of the things that was most vaunted on its cinema release – its realism. I had the same reaction as I do with the endless stream of British movies set on council estates, where people live grim lives, are constantly miserable and if they go outside there’s a 75% chance someone will try and murder them. In those cases there seems to be a presumption that if it’s powerful and miserable, it must be realistic, even though just a little thought makes you realised you’re getting an incredibly heightened version of reality, where the problem are brought into the sort of didactic relief you’d never find in real life.
I had a similar feeling with Starred Up. Now I’m not saying it’s completely fake – far from it fact, as it’s written by a man who, like Oliver, used to run groups for prisoners where he tried to challenge their behaviour and improve their lives. However it is undoubtedly a heightened, condensed version of this world. After all, if real prisons were places where nobody could finish a single conversation without trying to murder somebody, it simply couldn’t function.
The film does look at real problems and real issues, but I think to call it realism actually does it disservice. There’s a tendency that this phrase allows middle class people with no idea what that kind of life is really like to sit safely on the sidelines while feeling like they’re being educated. However it can be a way to let themselves off the hook – because they’ve mistaken being immersed with seeing something ‘real’, they don’t actually properly engage with what they’re watching.
That would be a shame, as Starred Up is a very good film with a lot of interesting things to say, but just don’t excuse yourself by praising its ‘realism’ and not dig into what the point of its heightened prison universe actually is.
Overall Verdict: Superb performances and buckets of tension mean Starred Up is an incredibly engrossing watch. I may have an issue with what people perceive as its realism, but that doesn’t mean it’s not vital.
‘Making Of…’ Featurette
Interview With Jack O’Connell & Director David McKenzie
Behind The Scenes Footage
Reviewer: Tim Isaac