Starred Up (2013, UK)
Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is 19, ’starred up’ (transferred to adult prison prematurely from juvenile prison), and out to make a splash. On his first day he violently attacks an unsuspecting fellow prisoner, puts himself into a state of Bronson-esque arousal for the ensuing fight with prison officers and finishes up holding one officer hostage with an aerial at his throat and then gripping another’s privates between his teeth. I don’t know too many prisons that would allow him to just go back into the wing after that… even as an outcome negotiated for the officers’ release, but back to the wing he goes, the new prison Governor a little peeved that she hadn’t been advised of his arrival. It’s a mark of this film that it’s able to overcome that initial credibility gap and still be an exceptional prison movie.
Eric’s violence is a little frightening. He claims to have murdered a paedophile at the age of 10, and may have “offed” another man to prompt his transfer to the adult system, two years early. In prison he gets reacquainted with his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), whom he hasn’t seen for years, and it this faltering relationship that in many ways is at the heart of the film. That and the violence.
Neville is a man whose natural habitat is prison. He is a trusted lieutenant of the prison’s Mr Big, a cardigan-wearing asthmatic, Dennis Spencer (Peter Ferdinando), and has power and influence. But he is massively out of his depth as a father, particularly to son in whom he hasn’t shown any interest since he was five. But he wants to be a mentor to his son, largely because Spencer is none-too-happy about the ruckus that Eric is causing; an unsettled wing is bad for business. And he tries. “Listen to what the teacher has to say,” he urges his son as he leads him into a group for the prison’s most violent men.
The group is facilitated by a volunteer counsellor, Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend). I’m not familiar with the notion of a volunteer being given a set of keys, including cell keys, or even being given sole responsibility for treating a prison’s most volatile characters. It seems that the reason that Oliver is a volunteer is that the screenwriter, Jonathan Asser, was himself a volunteer counsellor of violent men at Wandsworth. Oliver’s relationship with the prison’s management is perpetually strained, and the group he runs is under constant threat of boiling over with outbreaks of violence. But it’s here that Eric starts to make some progress in understanding, and dealing with his violent impulses.
Some will possibly see Eric as uncomplicated - as simply an out of control monster. Yet the war he wages against authority - and it’s not directed just at prison officialdom, but the settled prisoner hierarchies that seek to dominate him as well - is borne out of a raw cynicism arising from his lived experience, and one with which it’s hard to argue. An absent an ineffectual father, abusive caregivers, corrupt staff all around him, a too-comfortable alliance between the staff and Spencer; none are deserving of his respect. It doesn’t help Eric that as he tries to navigate his way through these… he is confronted by the realisation that his father is settled into a relationship with a fellow prisoner who is his live-in lover. Only Oliver shows any integrity, but his motives are at first hard to grasp and he shares too many of the flaws of those he is committed to helping.
There are plenty of prison movies that rely on the staples of violence and corrupt prison officers to make up for a lack of an imaginative storyline. Here the characters and relationships are so well drawn, the acting so strong (with standout performances from O’Donnell, Mendelsohn and Friend), and the violence and the depiction of institutional neglect so authentic (the film was shot at the Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast and Maze Long Kesh in Lisburn), that the story is compelling from start to finish. Check it out.
Posted on August 30th, 2014 at 4:38 pm. Updated on August 30th, 2014 at 4:38 pm.
#5 in the Top 500