Review – Starred Up

Just when you think you’ve seen all there is to offer from the well-worn prison genre, along comes this exhilarating and intelligent low-budget gem.

Starred Up Poster

Starred Up is as smart and uncompromising as it is ferocious. There’s a new daddy in town and this is it

From Cool Hand Luke (1967), to Midnight Express (1978), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and about a million others, the prison movie lends itself to numerous different interpretations.

The most forgettable tend to be none-too-weighty action flicks that provide steady work for former wrestlers or MMA fighters, while the ones that stick in the memory are either allegorical (Cool Hand Luke‘s religious symbolism, for example) or have something to say about the world we live in.

Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) is Starred Up

Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is Starred Up

One of the best prison movies in recent years was Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009) which, apart from being genuinely nail-biting, was also overt in its politics. There are hints of A Prophet in David Mackenzie’s brutal and electrifying Starred Up as it closely follows the travails of Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a young inmate prematurely incarcerated into an adult prison.

The film’s methodical opening reel is similar to Audiard’s masterpiece as it fixes its gaze on Eric as he is transported to jail and is processed by the guards in a deliberately intimidating fashion designed to reinforce the power structure. Unlike Tahir Rahim’s Malick from A Prophet, however, Eric is already a veteran of the penal system, having been ‘starred up’ (transferred early) from a Young Offender Institution and makes it is first act to fashion a weapon for himself.

Like father, like son... Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) discovers son Eric (Jack O'Connell) is inside in Starred Up

Like father, like son… Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) discovers son Eric (Jack O’Connell) is inside in Starred Up

Although clearly intelligent, Eric is also a caged animal and acts impulsively, more often than not out of a sense of fear. He must also deal with the discovery that he’s locked up alongside his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a respected long-term convict, and forms a loose connection with the well-meaning Oliver (Rupert Friend), a therapist who wants a chance to help him.

Eric stands at a crossroads within the prison. His father represents a broken past that has led him to this place; the system, led by Sam Spruell’s loathsome Deputy Governor Hayes represents the walls that surround him in the present; while a possible future is represented by Oliver, who wants to help break the cycle of violence and self-destruction in the lives of Eric and other inmates.

Therapist Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend) tries to help inmate Eric (Jack O'Connell) in Starred Up

Therapist Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend) tries to help inmate Eric (Jack O’Connell) in Starred Up

The brutality of the prisoners is reflected by the guards and the authority that runs the facility. Jonathan Asser’s script (based on the writer’s own experience of having worked as a therapist in a prison) deftly lays bare the hypocrisy of a prison system that purports to want to rehabilitate its inmates, but in actuality sees the likes of Eric as nothing more than worthless scum not worth bothering with. Violence begets violence, from the bottom to the very top.

O’Connell gives a fearless performance as Eric. On his own in his cell, he betrays a pent-up look of fear that reminds us just how young he is, but around others adopts a puffed up arrogance that spills over into uncontrollable fury.

Convict Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) won't take things lying down in Starred Up

Convict Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) won’t take things lying down in Starred Up

Eric’s complicated relationship with his father is the heart of the film and both actors give it everything they’ve got. Eric initially cannot look Neville in the eye when they first encounter each other in the prison yard and the anger and disappointment felt by his father is palpable. Neville, whose impulse towards savagery is shared by Eric, is torn between looking out for his son and wanting to knock seven bells out of him, and it’s absorbing watching how one side slowly wins out over the other.

Needless to say the violence is shocking and visceral, but then it has to be when you consider the environment these people exist in.

Starred Up is as smart and uncompromising as it is ferocious. There’s a new daddy in town and this is it.

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30 comments

  1. Joseph@thecinemamonster · September 14, 2014

    Easily one of the best 2014 is offering thus far, excellent review, my friend :). O’Connell and Mendelsohn are unstoppable!

    • Three Rows Back · September 23, 2014

      Sorry Joseph, the comment I thought I’d posted hasn’t shown up on here for some reason. I’ve been on a very pleasant run of late – and all British films to boot! Fantastic!

  2. Tyson Carter · September 14, 2014

    Nice write up buddy. I enjoyed this, main 3 were excellent in their roles. Still not a patch on A Prophet for me this one, but a solid prison film.

    • Three Rows Back · September 14, 2014

      Cheers Tyson. You’re right, A Prophet is the more rounded film, but this still packs a mighty punch.

  3. fernandorafael · September 14, 2014

    Great review. I’ve been hearing great things about this one so far!

  4. Tom · September 15, 2014

    Gosh I can’t wait to see this thing, what a fascinating relationship dynamic!! And I am really digging Mendelsohn right now, he’s great. Thanks to your solid work I am prepared for a pretty brutal ride but one that should be worth the flinches. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Three Rows Back · September 15, 2014

      Mate, I think you’ll really love it. Mendelsohn’s effortless here and can’t seem to put a foot wrong. The scenes he shares with O’Connell are electrifying.

  5. Kerry Fristoe · September 15, 2014

    I loved Starred Up. I reviewed it on my site, too. I agree with you. It’s the best prison film I’ve seen in a long time. The actors were spring loaded and despite my lack of prison experience, it seemed dead on. Great review!

    • Three Rows Back · September 15, 2014

      Ah, thanks! Will take a look at your review; always great to read other opinions.

  6. Robert · September 15, 2014

    Great review. You liked this more than me but I can’t deny the strong performances in this one.

    • Three Rows Back · September 15, 2014

      They’re what makes it for. Weaker performances would have made this an also-ran. Appreciate the feedback as always ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Nostra · September 15, 2014

    Great review, I thought it was a very intense movie thanks to some amazing performances.

    • Three Rows Back · September 15, 2014

      Appreciate that my friend. Thee performances are what lifts this above so many other prison movies.

  8. Laura O · September 15, 2014

    Great review, I loved this film: I virtually stumbled out of the cinema in a daze after it finished. Simply stunning.

    • Three Rows Back · September 15, 2014

      Thanks! It’s one of the more hardcore movies you’ll see this year isn’t it?

  9. mikeyb @ screenkicker · September 15, 2014

    You hit the nail on the head when you said ‘uncompromising’. I liked it too and it was refreshing how there was no happy ending in sight so it seemed more real

    • Three Rows Back · September 15, 2014

      Cheers man. Couldn’t think of a better word. Glad you got a kick out of it too.

  10. ruth · September 16, 2014

    I need to see something w/ Jack Oโ€™Connell, he seems to be one of the most talented young talents working today. Especially curious how he’d tackle the Zamperini biopic Unbroken this Christmas.

    • Three Rows Back · September 16, 2014

      He’s been getting a lot of buzz over here since he was in the TV show Skins. Very promising young actor.

  11. theipc · September 18, 2014

    Those captions are…… FUCKING BOSS!

    #LikeABoss

    • Three Rows Back · September 18, 2014

      ๐Ÿ˜€ WHO’S THE DADDYYYYYY!!!!!

      • theipc · September 18, 2014

        #DNATest

  12. table9mutant · September 21, 2014

    Damn! This is getting such positive reviews on WordPress now. Almost sorry I skipped it! Nice review. ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · September 22, 2014

    Spot on review mate, I thought this was fantastic. Definitely one of the more underrated films of the year so far.

    • Three Rows Back · September 23, 2014

      Thanks as always Chris. Another great 2014 British film; it’s been a really solid year for UK cinema.

  14. Writer Loves Movies · September 26, 2014

    Excellent review. Starred Up is one of the biggest surprises for me so far this year. O’Connell is terrific and I’m eager to see what he does next in ’71.

  15. Pingback: Review – ’71 | three rows back

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