If you thought Arnie and Sly’s Escape Plan should have been charged with inauthenticity, David Mackenzie’s (Young Adam, Hallam Foe) tough prison movie is for you. Clues to its clout sit in the title. ‘Starred up’ is the process by which difficult young offenders are moved early to adult prison, flaunting writer and former prison counsellor Jonathan Asser’s experience.
But the main draw here is Jack O’Connell, who follows hard time in Skins, Harry Brown and Eden Lake with a performance sure to boot down career doors for him: ‘starred up’, indeed.
O’Connell plays Eric, a damaged “control problem” herded into the same pen as his dad, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). Fashioning a DIY shiv with the ease of changing a lightbulb, he isn’t getting out anytime soon.
Prison therapist Oliver’s (Rupert Friend) attempts to help him meet resistance – both from Eric, who has severe “trust issues”, and from oily governors who believe this runt is beyond hope (especially after Eric almost bites a guard’s knackers off).
Familiar prison-movie moves include some business with showers and blades that may make you wish you were watching something nicer (like Scum) but the brusque collision of place and performance lends heft to the clichés.
Handheld camerawork exacerbates the airlessness of the location, a disused Belfast slammer. Oliver’s anger-management sessions promise relief, until the knife-edge tension between Eric and Neville turns combustible.
If the father/son bond and therapy themes threaten to dip into melodrama, Mendelsohn’s muscular restraint and Friend’s stalwart idealist help take up the slack. But it’s O’Connell’s powder-keg combo of instinct and aggression that rams home the film’s core challenge: do we believe Eric can change?
Asser and Mackenzie offer no answers but they state the question with emotive, visceral force. As for O’Connell, Hollywood calls. Consider this a break-out.
The details ring true and the performances smart in Mackenzie’s prison movie. You wouldn’t meet Jack O’Connell’s tasty glare in a boozer, but try taking your eyes off him here.