Much time is spent depicting the young male as a violent, troublesome demographic, and it’s almost always put down to a traumatic past, be it abuse, poverty, bad parenting or whatnot. The issue with this is that so much attention is paid to causes rather than the afflicted’s current mental state, which is far too often ignored, or less explored in preference for getting to the root of the problem. Starred Up ackowledges that there’s no changing the past and so instead it stares straight into the mindset of Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), which is unfortunately typical of the chav-centred youth of modern Britain in that all he wants to do is fight.
Accordingly, the first thing 19-year-old Eric does after he’s relocated from a Young Offender Institution into an adult prison is build a shank, which he does as easily as if he’s been making them his entire life. His natural instinct when another inmate wakes him up is to leap out of bed and start throwing punches; only once the other inmate is downed, bleeding and unconscious does he stop to think about his actions, which is when he sends for help. The prison officers, seeing only the outcome, start after Eric in an attempt to put him in segregation; Eric runs back to his cell, rips two legs off a table and gets ready for another fight.
It’s an amazing sequence, one which exposes Eric’s defensive personality better than any back-story ever could. Of course, we do learn details about his past, but they’re delivered less as revelations and more as passing remarks; mostly they’re components in the character development of his father Nev (Ben Mendelsohn), a prisoner in the same jail and a name that causes inmates to quiver. Nev is a lifer, calloused and glowering, whose wounds become more and more apparent the closer he gets to his son.
Between the two of them, and indeed between every character in the film, there is a viciously compelling tension, a brilliantly realistic representation of a prominent sector of the British working class where, including in my own town and the surrounding area, a lot of people seem to have an aura of violence surrounding them at all time.
Without the electric performances by the two leads, and the well-choreographed dialogue battles which occasionally erupt into blows, Starred Up would just be another knuckles-hard grit-flick in the post-Guy Ritchie era of British filmmaking. However, the movie forces itself down your throat, choking you on its vociferous force-field of emotional frustrations and psychological traumas, a draining experience that never gives way to sensationalism – although it does become cloying towards end as it attempts to go out with a bang, ruining the overall impact instead of closing on a high note.
Despite the fact that Starred Up is aesthetically bare-bones and set in a prison, it never feels claustrophobic; rather, it presents Eric and Nev as bloodthirsty animals uncaged, whose energy seeps through every aspect of the frame. You learn early on that the characters are volatile to the point that it seems as though they could tear their way out of the film, and as a result there is an incredibly dangerous atmosphere that grips from the movie’s opening moments. Narrow-minded though it is, Starred Up is an accurate moving portrait of one of British culture’s worst aspects; the fighting crowd, which is usually less efficiently reflected than by the bravado filmmaking this film displays.
Starred Up was directed by David Mackenzie, written by Jonathan Asser and stars Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn and Rupert Friend. It lasts for 106 minutes and is a production of Film4, Creative Scotland, Quickfire Films, Northern Ireland Screen, LipSync Productions and Sigma Films. Distributed in the UK by Fox Searchlight.