In David McKenzie’s Starred Up, the tremendously named Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) finds himself transferred, ‘starred up’, from captivity with his fellow young offenders and into the general prison population. Sharing a wing with his estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), Eric defines himself through his violent opposition to the rules but is offered the chance no one thinks he deserves by the group therapy sessions led by Oliver (Rupert Friend).
Prisons provide a myriad of opportunities for a filmmaker; both Louis Theroux and Werner Herzog have made powerful prison documentaries; the more light hearted Escape from Alcatraz or The Great Escape provide a sense of adventure to these great chunks of granite and barbed wire; often the prison is an unjust oppressor like in the maudlin Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile.
In such a crowded genre, Starred Up was always going to have to do a job in order to be considered even a good prison film, but this is better than ‘good’, in fact, it’s excellent. Not in the least helped by astounding performances from Friend and Mendelsohn, this is O’Connell’s film. Taking his angry young man from Skins and This is England and jumping head first off a cliff, capable of switching from psychotic to more psychotic at a moment’s notice, Eric is like a poised viper, ready to strike out at any threat. But O’Connell’s performance is densely layered, bringing a backstory that’s only hinted at into full view through his almost automatic rejection of the rules. He is especially adept at showing us Eric’s deeper psychological condition in his more quite moments; when he’s alone in his cell, talking at his group therapy sessions or interacting with his father Eric seems almost normal, relatable and, bizarrely, affable.
So if you want to see a prison film, I’d certainly recommend this. If you want to see a clever twist on the father/ son dynamic, this film will do it for you. If you want to go see a film with Cooke from Skins in it, make sure it’s Starred Up and not the terrible 300: Rise of an Empire. He also gets his cock out in this, so if that’s something you’re interested in seeing, give it a bash. However you choose to approach it, and you should, you’ll come away impressed, satisfied and intrigued. And that’s the point of films, right?