Starred Up emerges out of screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s experiences working within the education department at Wandsworth Prison. This knowledge lets us further understand both the meticulous realism of the film and the placing of its central force for good as Oliver (‘O’) the therapist who appears to be the only member of staff who believes in the possibility of rehabilitation for violent protagonist Eric Love (Jack O’Connell). As the film has materialised from Asser’s personal experiences, one could ask whether he witnessed events similar to those of the film and if Oliver is a surrogate role for himself. While the answers to these questions may prove valuable, and indeed it may help us better understand prison corruption, it seems we are delving too deep into biographical matters. We can use the evidence of Asser’s experience, on the other hand, to account for the realism of the film, a realism which is anchored in the exploration of the intimate actions of everyday prison life. Mackenzie’s camera trains its eyes on both the small details of prison and the violent brawls which upset the ever fragile order. This film observes much in silence, alluding but not investigating many elements such as drug use and homosexuality which are outside the film’s scope. This film is about violence, rehabilitation and prison corruption, themes explored through the strained relationship of a father and son who share the same prison wing.
While some elements of Starred Up recall Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, a film director David Mackenzie has cited as an influence, the scenes of explosive violence situate the film within a subsequent tradition of prison dramas, best exemplified by Alan Clarke’s Scum. The film begins with the arrival of 19 year old Eric Love to an adult prison, a character so dangerous his young offender’s institution had to release him two years early. It appears that young Eric knows how to get by within prison life: on immediate arrival he fabricates both a makeshift knife out of a toothbrush and razor and a key to unlock the overhead light to store this weapon. Brutal violence is nearly instantaneous as Eric hospitalises both a fellow inmate and attacks the members of staff who try to contain him in response to this act. It immediately seems that Eric is irredeemable, incapable of rehabilitation, as this brawl lands him an anger-management group overseen by therapist Oliver who he forthrightly rejects. This is where his father Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn) appears as a positive force in Eric’s life. While the young lad will not obey standard figures of authority, his father executes some control over the young individual by ordering that he attends the anger-management classes and listens to Oliver. Neville, who revels in this role of powerful father, is however disgruntled when he finds that his son has made connections on his own without his help. These connections are the members of the anger-management class who Eric impressed with his savage attack on the genitalia of one of the prison guards. Deputy Governor Haynes, the most evil force in the film, allows Eric to attend these classes with his new associates, however, on the condition that he does not involve himself with anymore violence. With Eric’s history in mind, this is obviously not a possibility. This offer works as an excuse to subject Eric to extreme punishment, retribution for the violence caused by Eric on both the corrupt prison officers and society, violence sadistically dispensed by Haynes and his employees.
The success of the film lies in the strength of its acting, its exploration of the positive effects of group therapy and its thorough investigation of prison life. Jack O’Connell’s performance as Eric is horrifying in its brutality and remarkable in its realism. O’Connell embodies both Eric the psychopath and Eric the rehabilitated, forging a character of many nuances: capable of immense violence on the one hand and extreme vulnerability on the other. His is one of the strongest performances I have witnessed this year and indeed Starred Up may work as the break-out film for this young actor. While the acting of others in the film does not quite match up to O’Connell’s electrifying performance, this is not to devalue the efforts of those playing the inmates, from the members of the anger-management class to Mendelsohn in the role of Neville, who offer remarkable displays. The film’s strongest scenes are those set within the anger-management class where Eric learns to control his anger, demonstrating that there is hope for this disturbed individual. This struggle to rehabilitate Eric seems to me, in addition to its exploration of the father-son relationship of Eric and Neville, to be its most successful narrative thread.
However, the film falls down in its characterisation of the prison guards and Haynes as evil forces who wish to interrupt this rehabilitation. While the inmates are presented as characters with various sides, from violent to vulnerable and caring, the prison guards and Haynes are written off as malicious and corrupt characters. For me this seems both an attempt to fabricate a narrative out of these loosely connected scenes and to force the easily obtainable reading of the film: that the prison officers and Haynes are worse than the inmates they are policing, that prison corruption is worse than the violence of criminals. MacKenzie has himself stated that the film ‘is about loving the characters who are unlovable’, offering a positive side to those characters who appear irredeemable. However, the characterisation of the figures of authority as one-sided seems to me unnecessary. The film works best when it focuses on the lives of the inmates, observing the intimate details of the prison and avoiding contrived plots. Overall Starred Up is a powerful film and one which must be evaluated on the strength of Jack O’Connell’s performance and its realist investigation of prison life.