Any British prison flick that can sit on your DVD shelf next to Scum and not feel intimidated has got to be taken seriously. Written by Jonathan Asser, a former prison psychotherapist who worked in HMP Wandsworth, Starred Up oozes authenticity and insider knowledge. But this is no docu-drama, with a story that leans towards Greek tragedy as volatile young offender Eric (Skins’ Jack O’Connell) is forced to serve his time with hardened crims, including his own old man, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn).
Before you can say ‘the sins of the father’, director David Mackenzie – easily delivering his best film since 2003’s Young Adam – stirs up (or should that be ‘stars up’?) an emotional cauldron, as Eric is thrown to the lions – inmates that want him quashed, guards that don’t care. The only soul that does is Rupert Friend’s therapist, Asser’s alter ego, whose anger management sessions try to diffuse the testosterone circling around Eric’s system (rather like placating King Kong with a banana).
In what is a star-making turn, O’Connell sizzles on screen, every bit as good as Tahar Rahim in Jacques Audiard’s jail drama A Prophet, while Mendelsohn fashions a twist on the psycho he played in Animal Kingdom and the junkie thief in Killing Them Softly.
Shot with a sickly pallor by Michael McDonough (the DP behind Winter’s Bone) Starred Up isn’t perfect, with a plot hampered by contrivances. But between the tough and the surprisingly tender, there’s enough to make it worth a gander before lights out.
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