Jack O’Connell plays Eric, a young offender who is “starred up” (it’s the name of the movie!) and moved to adult prison ahead of time at the age of nineteen. Eric is prone to explosive bouts of violence which threaten to put both his chance of release and his life in severe danger. The prison Eric is moved to also houses his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) and the hope is that his presence will help calm the brutal teenager but he finds more authentic help in the form of volunteer counsellor Oliver (Rupert Friend).
Starred Up is a film riddled with violence as prisoners attack prisoners, guards attack prisoners, and prisoners attack guards. Everything from a table to a toothbrush, from a toilet to a pen, is used as a dangerous weapon and Eric often finds himself covered in blood, excrement, and baby oil. This is not an easy film to love. Being the soft delicate man that I am I find it incredibly hard to relate to characters like Eric. These are the types of people that make me feel a bit nervous when walking past in the street and the film gives me no reason not to continue doing so.
O’Connell is no stranger to playing the violent thug role and while he does it incredibly convincingly it would be nice to see him do something a little different. The role of Eric allows him plenty of opportunity to seem rough and tough but he isn’t given much depth and any redeeming features were not easy to find. Yes Eric had a troubled childhood but it is tricky to sympathise with him about that when he is affixing a razor blade to a toothbrush on his first night in prison. I guess I’m just old fashioned that way.
And it’s not just Eric. All but one of the characters come across as needlessly unpleasant individuals as guards and prisoners alike screw each other over as soon as they get a chance. The only truly selfless character is Rupert Friend’s counsellor Oliver who seems to be battled with the guilt of privilege by helping prisoners control their anger without taking a salary. Unfortunately I could never truly connect with Oliver as Friend had chosen to sport a goatee that made him the spitting image of Orlando Bloom and left me trying to figure out if I was watching Bloom give the performance of his life or not. I wasn’t, but Rupert Friend was good nonetheless.
Starred Up is a visceral and solidly made prison drama with a strong lead performance by Jack O’Connell. What it fails to provide is anything we’ve never seen before as we’ve seen O’Connell play the same character under other names numerous times before and a prison filled with violence and corruption is nothing new either.
Starred Up screens at the festival on the 10th, 11th and 12th October and is in UK cinemas in 2014.