Have to admit I was not immediately familiar with the name David Mackenzie. On further investigation I was reminded that he helmed 2011’s highly-original Perfect Sense (do check it out). Starred Up has forced me to sit up and take notice of this talented director. I won’t forget his name again in a hurry.
The title refers to the rare process in which a juvenile delinquent is so problematic that he is ‘Starred Up’ from a young offenders unit to an adult prison. The problem with young Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is his unrelenting proclivity for violence. He is duly processed into the far-heavier-duty prison world and continues to fight both the system and its inmates like it was his true calling. The kicker here being that he’s been assigned to the same wing as his father, Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn).
Striking a great balance between visceral thrills and thoughtful drama it’s powerful stuff. The film brilliantly captures a young buck’s instinct to lock horns. Eric does little in the way of thinking - he dives in fists first with little thought about the consequences. The transfer is like a promotion for him and he wears it like a badge of honour. This is a new and interesting spin on a tale set in lock-up. I always love the unpalatable (and often ingenious) minutia of a good prison flick and this has plenty. We’re shown in fine detail how easy it is to make a deadly shiv with just a cigarette lighter, a safety razor and a toothbrush. These kind of touches are fascinating and downright nasty.
The onus is very much on O’Connell and he impresses throughout. (He also looks like he’s done some serious working out to cut an authentic prison physique.) I was an instant fan of Ben Mendelsohn after seeing 2010’s Animal Kingdom and here the Australian actor more than convinces as a lifer London thug. Rupert Friend delivers as posho-out-to-do-good prison therapist. The group therapy scenes are unique for their intensity and unlike anything I’ve seen on screen - they involve a series of ferocious stand-offs with an intelligent commentary by each of the participants.
Mackenzie clearly has a nose for a good script. Jonathan Asser takes sole screenwriting credit. I don’t know what Asser’s background is but suspect he’s rubbed up against some right wrong’uns in his time and he’s put that experience to great use. Either that or he’s a master of research. The authenticity of the dialogue is terrifying and the writer displays a very cutting wit.
The film is not without its faults. There are a couple of slightly duff performances – from the prison staff - but thankfully they don’t feature too heavily. (I should add, the cons themselves are all superb.) However, the raw power of the film makes up for any such minor imperfections. Director Mackenzie gives us something tough, lurid and uncompromisingly British. He’s also achieved tremendous production value with a £2million budget. It’s both fantastically entertaining and a thought-provoking watch.