The beginning and end of Starred Up, David Mackenzie’s brutally frank prison drama, take place within the confines of the film’s nameless penitentiary. The world outside the walls may as well be the Moon for all the relevance it has to any of the proceedings within them. Revisiting the spare immediacy of Hallam Foe and Young Adam — and aping, in style, if not narrative, Jacques Audiard’s startlingly realistic A Prophet — Mackenzie’s powerful depiction of the British penal jungle is a claustrophobic meditation on the collapse of social conventions and controls.
Opening with the invasive inspection of stoic, newly arrived 19-year-old inmate Eric Love — ‘starred up’ from a young offenders’ institution — events are set against the drearily evocative backdrops of Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol and Lisburn’s Maze prison. Forget the tabloid tales of comfortable sofas and Sky Sports, Love’s new home is cramped, desolate and utterly horrifying. Indeed, it is somewhat fitting that Northern Ireland, a place not unfamiliar with the concept of Her Majesty’s pleasure, should be able to provide locations as truly desperate as these. This is not the gothic cathedral of Stephen King’s Shawshank, nor is it imbued with the mellow, familial elegance of his green mile. If Eric wasn’t mad going in, it is likely he would emerge a lesser man.
Eric is sane, of course, but he is not exactly well adjusted. A product of the system, and a longtime ward of the state, his crimes are many, his senses honed, even at his relatively young age, to an almost perfect degree. His first action upon earning a moment’s privacy is to fashion a shank from a razor blade and a toothbrush, a coldly efficient use of time and materials. Within hours of arriving he has accidentally beaten a fellow prisoner senseless, induced a riot and bitten a guard’s penis. It is a hectic opening, though, given the obvious savagery of Eric and his jailers, not entirely surprising.
In the lead role, Jack O’Connell excels, reducing his murderous ring leader of 2008’s terrifying Eden Lake to little more than a petulant lout. Featured already this month in the deliciously overblown 300 sequel, his performance here is undoubtedly one of searing authenticity. It marks him out as an up-and-comer of genuine talent. Eric is, with the best will in the world, set to spend much of his life inside and O’Connell is careful not to play him as someone with any plans beyond the next meal. Incarceration is his reality, his touchstone and, in spite of the efforts of some of those around him, he has few designs on anything else. Significantly, the reasons for his being locked away are never articulated. Like all that exists beyond the horizon of high concrete walls, they are irrelevant.
With the aid, however, of Rupert Friend’s tutor, Oliver, Eric slowly comes out of his shell. He learns to offer gratitude, practise self-control, conciliate; he even gains a tea mug with his name on it. These are small steps on the road, not to redemption, but to survival.
Friend is particularly fascinating. A hazily-motivated civilian counsellor who hints at significant personal baggage, he may leave at any moment but clearly seeks, and finds, solace in this grim edifice of HMP Wherever. He is the one calming figure in an unsteady environment where dangerous men live on top of each other, where jailhouse flunkies are used for very specific purposes — mobile phones can fit into many small spaces it seems — and where sexual proclivities are born of necessity: “It’s fuckin prison innit?”
In the midst of all the grime rests a surprisingly tender family tale. Glum Australian character actor, Ben Mendelsohn, is a seriously gifted performer and, as prison enforcer Nev Love, he turns in a brilliantly layered portrayal.
As it happens he is also Eric’s wayward father, torn between keeping the population in line, at the behest of his sinister benefactor (Peter Ferdinando), and providing some level of foul-mouthed guidance to his defiant offspring. Nev’s is a contorted moral code and sure, the circumstances of the reunion may be far from ideal, but, in his quieter moments, he is solid in the conviction that his son’s best interests are of foremost concern.
It is unfortunate that the bravery on show comes under threat from the kind of overheated, underdeveloped mawkishness that defines the final twenty minutes. Quite why Mackenzie decided to follow this route is confusing considering the atmosphere of vicious realism in which his picture ultimately thrives. The tenderness of the finale is far more apt, a suggestion that simple contact is as essential to humanity as the need to endure.
An edited version of this article was first published here.