‘Must see’ movie : Starred Up

Prison dramas tend to invite the expectations of intense, dangerous scenarios filled with violent confrontations and vulgar spats. Director David Mackenzie’s gradually affecting Starred Up has all those ingredients but uses them for more precise means that merely revealing the harsh nature of life behind bars. Mackenzie (whose previous credits include Perfect Sense and Young Adam) applies a sharp kitchen sink realism to this haunting setting and directs it toward an ultimately moving family drama that just happens to involve vicious convicts

Based on a script by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser, the film opens with Eric (Jack O’Connell, a new star) being admitted to prison and undergoing the dehumanizing protocols of stripping off, being repeatedly examined and having all his possessions vetted. Mackenzie shoots with handheld immediacy, and an eye for the authenticity of the squalid, joyless surroundings throughout (it was mainly filmed in a disused Belfast prison, and Asser based the script on his own experiences as a pioneering prison counsellor). And that authenticity extends to the dialogue too, initially almost disorienting in its loyalty to a near-impenetrable inmate argot, and we soon realize that the words themselves are not the most important thing: this is a story told through action - body language, eye contact and bristling physicality

Eric is pretty used to it, having spent most of his young life in some sort of state institution due his mother’s death and his father’s long incarceration. The title refers to ultra-dangerous under-21 prisoners being promoted to adult facilities and Eric would seem to qualify; it takes several guards to subdue him during his violent outbursts, which are frequent, and he knows every trick in the book -greasing himself down, even clamping his teeth down on someone’s privates through his pants - to get the upper hand in fights

Eric gets in temporary hot water with the black prisoners after he practically kills one of them in a one-on-one fight and has trouble sitting still during group therapy sessions run by an ineffectual volunteer (Rupert Friend). But the central thrust of the script stems from the unpredictable dynamic between Eric and his father Neville (an excellent Ben Mendelsohn), who’s detained here as well. It’s easy to see where Eric’s belligerent, hot-tempered ways came from, even if the older man may not be as muscularly threatening as he used to be

The story’s basic dynamics are clear enough because they’re played out in such obvious physical terms, so the viewer can pick up the gist of things. However, it’s impossible to avoid thinking that one is missing many nuances and meanings, not only due to the thick, slang-ridden accents, but due to references, prison-based and otherwise, that inevitably shoot right past anyone not attuned to this sort of talk

But there’s always O’Connell, whose performance is so volatile and scary that you never know when he’ll pop next and what he might do. He’s more than street-smart, he’s jailhouse-smart; the pen is Nick’s natural turf and even if he doesn’t own it, he knows how to use it and have his way there far better than most long-timers. The actor would seem to have live wires running through his whole body and it should be very interesting to follow his career from here on

There are many reasons why this film is as fine an exemplar of its genre as we’ve seen, but just one main factor that elevates it above its brethren; Starred Up, like its characters, never loses face, never compromises its bloodily-earned hard-man cred, yet its real agenda is one of compassion. This coalface humanism, buried bone-deep beneath blood that splatters, sinews that strain and veins that bulge with misplaced rage, is the surprisingly uncynical moral of the story -if we can be made to believe that Eric, of all people, might be worthy of redemption, then surely there isn’t a sinner on the planet who doesn’t also deserve a chance, however slim, at being saved

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