DIR: David Mackenzie • WRI: Jonathan Asser • PRO: Gillian Berrie • DOP: Michael McDonough • ED: Nick Emerson, Jake Roberts • DES: Tom McCullagh • CAST: Rupert Friend, Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Spruell
As perverse a statement as it may be to make about the popular viewing public-at-large it is at this point unquestionable that the prison movie is a staple of the coming-of-age genre. The institutionalized frame has seen more boys become men (or indeed men become men) than that of the average upper middle-class boarding school and so, like trips to the old West or West London gangster locales, there is weighty canon of quality work to stand tall against, for as cynicism comes like steps to the seasoned cinema goer, and I have been dying to pile more accolades on 2008’s magnificently forgotten The Escapist, if only at the outright denouncement of another picture. Unfortunately and unexpectedly, this reviewer may have to wait for Danny Dyer’s next outing behind bars because David MacKenzie’s Starred Up delivers on almost all counts.
The opening 20 minutes of one’s standard prison outing dilly-dally with time by telling us things we know already from other prison films. Starred Up grabbed my attention almost immediately with a dazzling sequence in which Jack O’Connell’s Eric strips down his cell, melting a razor into the end of his toothbrush and fashioning a stash out of his light-strip in less than 90 seconds. This, as well as many a violent outburst in the film’s opening act , establish Eric as a seasoned con who may rely on experience and expertise during his interim, which, as we consider his age, concocts a new statement in its own right.
The nature of Eric brings one instantly to mind of early Alan Clarke productions, in particular Scum and Made in Britain, with one iconic scene from Scum being quite obliquely referenced midway through. However, the main ripples from Clarke’s features are seen thematically; for instance, as Eric awaits guards in his cell with a shank in either hand, and a greased up stomach to more easily evade capture, one cannot help see a disillusioned man whose only interaction with authority has thought him to resist it and thus he has evolved.
Where the film gauges more interest and earns its stripes as a coming-of-age picture are with the dynamics between Eric and his would-be authority figures, namely Rupert Friend’s amiable psychoanalyst Oliver, Sian Breckin’s cruel warden and Ben Medelsohn on typical terrifying form as head-con Neville who also transpires to be Eric’s estranged father. As the three jostle for his rehabilitation, subjugation and submission, respectively, the film’s indictment of institutionalisation as counterproductively marginalising becomes its centrepiece and the symbolic standoff of the third acts takes a potentially typical conclusion and makes it interesting.
I have mentioned Ben Mendelsohn as I always must regarding anything he’s appeared in since 2010’s superb Animal Kingdom but truthfully (and thankfully) the most intriguing, energetic acting on show here comes from O’Connell, whose growing legion of fans will only grow with this picture. He is the bustling, brawny centrepiece of this often grim yet somehow uplifting slice of Brit-grit, of which I know nothing comparable to in recent years, except maybe 2009’s superb A Prophet. With Starred Up, MacKenzie and O’Connell have both upped their games so significantly that I would be surprised, nay, disappointed to not see them work together again.
16 (See IFCO for details)
Starred Up is released on 21st March 2014