The sins of a jailbird father are revisited upon an embittered son in David Mackenzie’s gritty drama.
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Based on screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s experiences as a prison therapist, Starred Up pulls few punches in its depiction of life behind bars, delivering a flurry of beatings as characters jostle for supremacy.
Squeamish audiences are sentenced to their worst nightmare: a journey into an unforgiving world where disputes are settled with a slash from a makeshift shank fashioned from a toothbrush and razor blade.
Prisoner officers are just almost as cold-blooded as the offenders in their care, meting out violence to keep troublesome inmates in line. Belfast’s disused Crumlin Road Gaol provides a suitably claustrophobic setting and Mackenzie’s cameras explore every nook and cranny, capturing a vicious assault in the showers that leaves us wincing in horror.
At the centre of madness is 19-year-old repeat offender Eric (Jack O’Connell), who swaggers into his first adult prison as if he owns the joint. Clothed in a regulation grey tracksuit, Eric expertly constructs then conceals a shank.
An altercation with prison guards leads to a spell in solitary confinement and Eric is ushered before lifer Spencer (Peter Ferdinando), who rules the roost.
It transpires that Eric’s father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is at the same facility and operates as one of Spencer’s underlings. Their reunion after 14 miserable years of estrangement is far from happy.
Punctuated by explosions of unsettling and graphic violence, Starred Up is reminiscent of Alan Clarke’s seminal 1979 film Scum, which chronicled one young man’s journey through the hell of a British borstal.
Mackenzie’s film is almost as suffocating, anchored by a no-holds-barred performance from O’Connell that’s a far cry from his formative years on ground-breaking Channel 4 teen drama Skins.
The 23-year-old actor electrifies every frame, offering glimpses of fear behind Eric’s cocksure facade as he rages against an imperfect system.
Friend and Mendelsohn are compelling in support and Asser’s script steadfastly refuses to polish any rough edges with pat sentimentality.
For these characters, the milk of human kindness is always sour and they have no choice but to swig and swallow.