Starred Up (London Film Festival 2013)
A long staple of prison dramas has been the fleeting family visit, although Starred Up adds a twist by having a father and son locked up in the same ward. The title, Starred Up, refers to Eric (Jack O’Connell), a young offender who’s moved to an over-21 institution based on violent behaviour. He demonstrates a wiliness that suggests he’s comfortable behind bars, whether fashioning a makeshift weapon with a toothbrush, or throwing punches at anyone who challenges him. A fellow inmate even says, “Starred up means you’re a leader.”
Eric’s rough childhood involved losing his mother in tragic circumstances, while his father (Ben Mendelsohn) was locked up during his early year. The script, by Jonathan Asser, doesn’t pump out too much back story, thus fashioning a rougher, more frightening environment: when socialising in and around cells, there’s little conversation about pre-prison life, as if it didn’t exist.
Instead, a number of hierarchies exist; the top cells have games consoles and chocolate bars, but Eric’s empty room is furnished with cornflakes. Prison politics are equally fascinating and frightening, in much the way viewers are glued to gangster narratives; an alternative law exists, which even twists the arm of security guards.
Rupert Friend does sterling work as a sympathetic voluntary worker (which he denies is the same as a hobbyist) who identifies incarceration as an unhealthy home for a young, violent offender – the authorities do their best to prevent Eric’s therapy sessions, seemingly as a desire to watch the teenager suffer. Eric’s father, just as he was before sharing the same space, is powerless to protect his son.
The gripping narrative builds up through claustrophobia, running circles inside the building. David Mackenzie deserves credit for direction that intensifies the emptiness of life inside a small room, with only a gleaming light shining through the window – that, and for turning a revolving door into a symbolic recurring image.
Starred Up is part of the London Film Festival’s “Official Competition” strand. Screening information can be found here.
100 mins approx