A lot of people peak in high school. Eric Love is not one of them. While many other teenagers are in the thick of their glory days, Eric is being starred up – that is, making the transition from a juvenile facility to a maximum security penitentiary, where he is billeted alongside some of the country’s very worst criminals. What follows over the next 100 minutes is as harrowing as you’d perhaps expect for a film that, in the first 10 minutes, sees Eric fashioning a shiv from a toothbrush and Bic razor. No good will come of this.
As you can probably tell by now, Starred Up feels close to the work of Alan Clarke, Ken Loach and the socially minded grandees of British cinema. Initially, Clarke’s Scum appears to be a key reference point here – both films open with the arrival of a new inmate whose passage through prison provides the film’s narrative motor.
But Eric Love and Clarke’s prison initiate Carlin are very different; Love is far more aggressive and impulsive than the resourceful Carlin. Critically, director David Mackenzie appears less interested in pursuing Clarke’s other, more politically minded concerns, in particular exposing conditions in the British penal system and, by extension, how that might be an indictment of an incumbent government. Another, more recent reference would be Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet.
The heart of Mackenzie’s film – surprisingly, considering the violence, the swearing, the violence and the swearing – is the relationship between Eric and his estranged father, Neville, a career criminal who is incarcerated in the same prison. It doesn’t take much to work out that part of the reason for Eric’s history of anti-social behaviour lies with his father’s absence – Neville has been in jail since Eric was five years old. In keeping with the tone of the rest of the film, their reunion is characterised by much swearing, interrupted by sporadic bursts of violence.
Starred Up marks an intriguing change of direction for David Mackenzie. Nine films into his career and so far he’s been hard to pin down. Among his early projects, he found critical acclaim with an Alex Trocchi adaptation, Young Adam – a film I remember chiefly, and woefully, for liberally displaying Ewan McGregor’s penis on camera – and also Hallam Foe, a dark but entertaining piece of magic realism starring Jamie Bell. A largely unsatisfactory sojourn to Hollywood followed.
But Starred Up signals an upward shift of the gears for Mackenzie; and with its uncompromising subject matter comes the implication that this is a work of mature filmmaking, one that should be taken seriously. In fact, Starred Up is so relentless and intensely bleak it’s possible to find yourself inadvertently bursting out laughing as yet another con gets their face slashed open, or a group of guards hang an inmate. The script is by Jonathan Asser, a former prison therapist, who uses his own intimate experiences to give authenticity to what is, essentially, a family drama set against a detailed backdrop of the British prison ecosystem. There is a subtext here about the nature of prison life – how, rather than rehabilitating characters like Eric and Neville, it has instead taught them how to get stronger.
But more interestingly is the way Asser and Mackenzie find subtle parallels between Eric and Neville, in particular the way they both utilise rage as a defence mechanism against external pressure to address their own feelings. As Eric, former Skins actor Jack O’Connell displays the same level of commitment to the role that – yes – the young Ray Winstone brought to Carlin in Scum, while Rupert Friend – presumably playing an analogue of Asser himself – is cast as the prison therapist who attempts to engage with Eric. The Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn – perhaps best known in the UK for playing the psychotic ‘Pope’ Cody in Animal Kingdom, as well as supporting roles in The Dark Knight Rises and Killing Them Softly – is entirely convincing as Neville, a man whose shambling gait and hangdog expression only seem to enhance his sense of menace.
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STARRED UP OPENS IN THE UK ON MARCH 21