David Mackenzie’s new prison drama is excellent, sustaining its compelling grip until near the end, when the need to achieve resolution pushes the script into an uncomfortable combination of sentiment, melodrama and implausibility. But it’s well worth a watch, if you have the stomach.
Eric is the new kid in the prison. Aged 19, he’s already starred up (which means he’s been moved to an adult prison earlier than usual, because he’s too hard to handle). Eric (Jack O’Connell) is indeed a hard case, liable to take offence or start a fight with equal enthusiasm. No one can put him in his place. Except his dad, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who is also in the same prison and who is determined that Eric will learn how to toe the line, and not spend his life inside.
There is an alternative father figure in the shape of Oliver (Rupert Friend) who runs an anger management class for prisoners, to which he manages to entice Eric. Oliver’s ambitions for his protege are, however, liable to be thwarted by a prison governor who doesn’t believe in rehabilitation, but prefers retribution. And the piggy in the middle continues to wreak havoc wherever he goes, until the point where you might sympathise with the view that he should be put down like a feral animal.
Fortunately Oliver’s view is more sensitively attuned, since Eric has undoubtedly had a rough time of it, and his response to authority makes perfect sense within his own field of vision. It’s just a matter of whether a new perspective can be offered in such a way that he can make use of it.
We’ve all seen our share of silly prison movies, but at their best – Un Prophete, Cell 211 – it is a genre that can produce powerful pieces of dramatic action, and Starred Up certainly achieves maximum tension. The setting and other inmates seem very plausible (to an uninformed outsider); the violence or threat of violence is unrelenting, and the swearing is industrial grade. O’Connell is terrific in the lead role, but Mendelson is equally good, with an impeccably geezer accent for an Aussie. Rupert Friend manages to make a potentially sappy role convincing, and I would highly recommend 85% of the film (which is more than most movies).
Sadly, I fear it will not attract a large audience, despite the excellent reviews it has had. People prefer movies about superheroes, romantic comedies or costume dramas. No one really wants to know what life is like in prison. But you should.
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