The rehabilitation of young offenders is a topic that is fair game for political point scoring in UK mainstream media, sometimes obscuring the possible background of severe hardship and suffering involved in the lives of child perpetrators. However, debut screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s first-hand experience with violent British criminals shines through with a deeply authentic script and brutally involving story in 'Starred Up'.
We are locked into the sad tale of Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a 19 year old criminal deemed so dangerous during his time at a young offenders institute that he has been transferred to an adult prison two years earlier than usual - a badge of honour known on the inside as being “starred up”. Eric is fluent in prison survival rituals, incarcerated from such a fragile age and robbed of innocence. All that remains is a coping mechanism of rapturous violence. But this adult prison holds more significance for Eric, as it is where his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) has been holed up.
Nev is respected and feared on the wing, but the arrival of his son is a perceived threat to his authority, and a reminder of his failure as a father. His empty personal understanding of Eric and clutching jealousy inspires a more volatile relationship, seeking to suppress Eric from development. Oliver, a volunteer therapist who has had success helping to re-orient the most threatening and wild inmates, attempts to eke Eric out of this vicious circle towards self-control. Failure to do so may cost Eric his life in these ruthless surroundings.
Jack O’Connell gives a blisteringly powerful performance as the troubled Eric. He convincingly flits between cheeky teenage bravado to combustive and blood spattering violence. Jack unwinds the psychological effects of his past trauma subtly through fraternising with inmates. However, every scene is left unpredictable, his watchful eyes like dry gunpowder.
Eric is someone that the viewer would not naturally sympathise with but Jack’s reflective moments or rare grins provide a hint of normality that keeps hope for salvation. Doubters will inevitably point to the similarities of Eric to Cook from 'Skins', but it is unquestionable that Jack has entered a new realm of acting maturity with such a layered character arc. If you still don’t believe us on his star potential, have a look at who the lead is in the next major Coen Brothers flick, 'Unbroken'…
David Mackenzie’s direction is spot-on, depicting a pent up feral aggression. The walls are flat and drab, echoing vulgarities and the clanking of metal bars latching and bolting. Drawing inspiration from the prison masterpiece, 'Un Prophete', every angle of observation from the factions of criminals on the wing is captured. Even Eric’s resourcefulness is illustrated brilliantly in just 30 seconds of quick shots, snapping a toothbrush in two, burning one edge to fit in a shaving blade and burning the other end to jimmy open a light fixture to hide the makeshift shank.
The natural biological authority of Neville over Eric is fascinating and played excruciatingly well by Ben Mendelsohn, adding weight to the unrealised potential to mentor Eric positively. The slightest shortfall with the film is Rupert Friend’s casting as the unconventional therapist, volunteering each day beyond compassion and moving to obsession with mending the most violent offenders. Bordering on over-acting, his tone and gesticulations hamper the immersion of a real practitioner. This is made more noticeable in a film that is simply so raw.
Yet 'Starred Up' is superb. A physical and jarring piece of cinema and a landmark performance for Jack O’Connell. Surely a frontrunner for winner of the 2013 Official Competition at the BFI London Film Festival.
'Starred Up' premieres in the UK at the BFI London Film Festival 2013. Find more info for screening times and purchase any remaining tickets at bfi.org.uk/lff.