Jack O’Connell (Skins) takes the lead role in a Greek tragedy come character piece set in a UK prison where the cells are small but the personalities are big.
Starred Up opens to O’Connell’s character, Eric Love, being inducted into a Victorian style prison. A typical layout for a prison drama with the caged staircase leading to higher floors. Here he is fondled and examined like a show dog by two officers. The scene plays through quietly with little to no music, the sound of rattling keys and portcullises closing piercing through its dominance. The dank atmosphere is immediately conveyed by the cinematography.
We are then thrown into this tense but compelling atmosphere. David MacKenzie sets up characters perfectly we know who’s who and who runs what. Such as Rupert Friend’s role as Oliver who runs therapy sessions for high risk, aggressive prisoners. These are based on real life sessions ran by writer Johnathon Asser. The film really benefits from the experience of Asser particular with realism felt from the prison dialogue. The sessions have a palpable tension that often climaxes. Like a scaled down version of the prison itself, the sessions are an unrelenting power struggle. There is opportunity for a game changing incident throughout. Hassan (Anthony Welsh) and Tyrone (David Ajala) bring an easily broken, calm demeanour that subvert Eric Love’s temper and energy as O’Connell dances through his performance. Rupert Friend brings an angular reserved performance to Oxfordshire “posh boy” Oliver.
There are certain prison drama tropes that crop up such as the cumbersome chef sloshing out food with his hand. The compulsory yard sequence with the prisoners walking in a circle. It works through its clichés well. The yard scene allows us to see the inner workings and the hierarchy of the prison. It’s also where we first meet Ben Mendelsohn’s character Neville Love. This is where the Greek tragedy aspects comes as a s
on inheriting the sins of his father. Nev starts to interfere in his son’s prison life when he sees his son doing it of his own accord.
With powerful performances, including O’Connell’s formidable and menacing Eric Love, compelling characters, realistic script and a powerful tension Starred Up is an excellent addition to the prison drama catalogue.