Director: David Mackenzie
Writers: Jonathan Asser
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Ben Medelsohn, Rupert Friend
Starred Up busts its way onto the indie scene like a grimacing skin head with glass shards strapped to his knuckles, intent on violently shaking up the flagging genre of hard hitting British drama. The few offerings to have surfaced from the limited finances of the British film industry recently have generally been of such low quality they could often be mistaken as parody, and are clearly only green lit in the first place based on some delusional idea that the Guy Richie ‘Mockney’ thing is still relevant.
Starred Up sheds all of the marketable cliches and gimmicks, stripping itself down to a raw experience reminiscent of the extreme low budget classics like Scum and Nil By Mouth. Devoted to a similarly unflinching and depressing view of reality, this almost old school experience seeks to rattle its audiences nerves, challenge their sympathies with deeply flawed characters, and oppress their senses with relentless tension and brutal violence.
It is a single minded approach to storytelling seemingly unique to British film makers and our cultures cynically bleak view of the world. Though this tendency to wallow in the inescapable misery of the low end of society may seem at times odd to a global audience – who would no doubt rather be whisked away on a magical journey of escapism – it offers a unique voice to the world of cinema which should be embraced.
After being moved to a high security adult prison, young offender Eric Love finds himself targeted as easy prey but this irrepressible hard case has other ideas than becoming the inmates’ new bitch. Looking to prove himself as dangerous enough to be not worth tangling with his disruption creates a problem for both the guards and the inmates who together maintain order on the wings.
The prisoners entrust Eric’s estranged father, also an inmate, to persuade him to accept their protection, while the guards grant a social worker a seemingly hopeless attempt to teach him to control his rage. Just as in This is England the story develops into a father figure struggle over the conscious of a stubborn but role model-less youth.
While the drama steadily builds the ever present sense of threat felt by Eric frames even the most functionary of scenes with an uncomfortably tense undercurrent, always suggesting that somebody is about to get their eyeballs gauged out of their sockets.
Despite never expanding this narrow focus the drama still somehow achieves a striking sense of epicness as the series of intertwining power struggles and personality clashes build towards an inevitably explosive climax.
What really sets Starred Up above similar films is a truly unsettling hyper realism. From the dehumanising processing of new inmates, to Eric’s shocking grasp of underhand survival techniques, the early scenes set the standard and clearly point to intensively researched detail and genuine anecdotal accounts. It continues into the intricate dialogue of the therapy sessions – a level of realism surely impossible to achieve based on imagination.
Though it is the writing and acting which sets Starred Up above the usual drama the visuals also achieve the highest levels of British Independent cinema. The unpolished grainy look of classic British dramas is replicated but combined with the striking lighting and frame composition usually better demonstrated by American counterparts.
There is little to fault here.
Perhaps with so many combustible testosterone fueled characters prone to extreme explosions of anger sharing the same limited space, the hard man factor does reach slightly overbearing levels. Shouting matches, shanking’s, fist fights and head kickings abound. This is not an experience to sit back and relax to but then what can you expect from the subject matter?
There are also perhaps one too many stock prison archetypes making up the ranks on both sides of the law, particularly the elder-statesman gangster who holds court from his cell, and the sadistic prison warden venting his own problems onto the prisoners. Then again maybe well-worn tropes are established for a reason and these hierarchies do actually exist to some degree, and given that the story is based on the writers real life experiences as a prison social worker, it is hard to argue that there isn’t some substantial truth behind the cliches.
Perhaps the overall story arch is slightly exaggerated and orchestrated for cinematic effect but you can be sure that the general atmosphere of oppression and constant fear is as realistic as film is likely to achieve, and as close to experiencing the real thing as you would want to be.
Prison eh? It’s little more than a holiday camp these days…