Prison dramas are not my cup of tea in all honesty, but there’s been a few impressive exception in the last year years from Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet to the Taviani brother’s Caesar Must Die. Normally I shy away from anything remotely full of macho posturing, but Starred Up promised to be a whole lot more.
Eric (Jack O’Connell) has been starred-up: A young offender who has been prematurely moved into an adult prison due to his behaviour. Whilst he wants to make a name for himself, he runs into trouble when he finds out his lifer father Nev (Ben Mendelsohn) is one of his wing mates. Things rapidly deteriorate for Eric, but the intervention of a volunteer support worker Oliver (Rupert Friend) offers him a chance to turn things around. Whilst Eric makes good progress in the support group, the spectre of his dysfunctional childhood and a domineering father are never too far away.
Whilst it contains many usual components of the genre, Starred Up is not your average prison drama. The father-son confrontation is the driving force behind Eric’s life, and whilst Jonathan Asser’s script embraces elements of Grecian tragedy (In a similar way Caesar Must Die did with Shakespeare), there are many subtle narratives and social commentaries simmering just below the surface.
Drawing on the unique approach he developed whilst working with the small number of violent gang members in prison, Asser transport’s himself into the character of Oliver. Whilst many of the plaudits will go to O’Connell who puts in a career defining and beautifully accented performance, for me Friend’s perfectly judged turn as an intellectual “do-gooder” with hidden steel, steals every scene.
Mendelsohn is a frighteningly real psychopath, and the inner conflicts and power struggle between father and son dominate and fascinate throughout director David Mackenzie’s film. There’s an old truism that blood is thicker than water, and whilst Eric sees another oath, old demons come home to roost.