Eric (Jack O’Connell) is a violent young offender who’s been moved to an adult prison. Whilst he’s locked up he brutally clashes with prison guards, but is taken under the wing of prison therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend). However, Eric’s biggest problem lies with fellow inmate Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) who also happens to be his father.
It always helps when someone heavily involved with a film can draw upon personal experiences in some way, and that’s exactly the case with Starred Up screenwriter Jonathan Asser. Asser worked as a voluntary therapist in HM Prison Wandsworth, and if he’s seen half the things that go on in Starred Up, then that’s all the encouragement anyone should need to stay on the right side of the law.
As you’d perhaps expect from a gritty British prison drama, Starred Up (the film is named after a term given to a young offender who is moved up into adult prison) can be pretty brutal and uncompromising. Within the first few minutes, Eric has already put a snapped radio aerial to a guard’s throat and that pretty much sets the tone for the film.
However, fortunately there’s a massive amount more to the film than just prison brutality. At the centre of the story is Eric’s relationship with two different people: his father Neville who’s also in prison with him, and Oliver the prison therapist. Both Neville and Oliver offer Eric something missing from his life up to that point, and although Eric is resistant to both in the outset, it’s interesting to see how the relationships develop and evolve over the course of the film.
See, Eric is a pretty abhorrent individual; there’s almost nothing to like about him whatsoever, and yet somehow you end up feeling sympathetic towards him. It might be pushing it to say he’s some kind of anti-hero, but there’s just something about him that instils a sense of sympathy in you.
This could very well be down to Jack O’Connell’s superb central performance. O’Connell fills the role of Eric with malice and angst, and it’s a fantastic physical performance at times, although he also brings a wonderful layer of vulnerability to the character. He perfectly shows the character’s inner conflict, and there’s a real tension whenever he’s on screen as he’s just so unpredictable. Ben Mendelsohn is also excellent as Eric’s father Neville. There’s a similar conflict within him, struggling to know how to do right by his son whom he’s never really been around to care for.
What does let the film down a little is that at times it feels somewhat contrived and cliched. Making a weapon out of a toothbrush and razor blade, a corrupt prison governor, the suggestion that you’ll turn gay in prison; this kind of thing doesn’t hold the story back at all, but does feel like we’ve been there a few too many times before.
Some slight contrivances aside, Starred Up is a solid character-driven drama. It’s bleak and unflinching at times, which may put some people off, but it’s well worth seeing for Jack O’Connell’s performance alone.
- Brilliant performance from Jack O’Connell
- Ben Mendelsohn also impressive
- Interesting relationships between the main characters
- Sometimes contrived and cliched