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Some years from now, Starred Up, a rough, violent and, to American ears, half-indecipherable British prison drama, will be remembered as the film that announced a new star, Jack O’Connell. A handsome, tautly built powder keg with watchful animal eyes, he’s been around for a while on the TV series Skins and in supporting roles, but his performance here as an ultra-violent anti-social kid in the slammer shows off the actor’s James Cagney-like bantam cock vitality and quicksilver mood changes. One can see why Angelina Jolie has cast him as the lead in her forthcoming film version of the best-selling survival tale Unbroken. As for Starred Up itself, it’s potent but somewhat familiar stuff, interesting for its highly detailed picture of British prison life but in need of subtitles if it hopes to move beyond festivals in the U.S.
The most cinematically arresting scene orchestrated by director David Mackenzie (the engagingly randy Young Adam, the sleazily randy Spread) is undoubtedly the opening, which vividly documents the full processing of young Eric (O’Connell) into the prison (shot at an actual facility in Belfast), through his polite strip search, change into prison garb, escort through innumerable doors and down assorted hallways until his arrival at a solo cell in the high risk section. When the door slams shut on the yellow room with a high window and minimal furnishings, it seems pretty definitive.
All the same, Eric is pretty used to it, having spent most of his young life in some sort of state institution due his mother’s death and his father’s long incarceration. The title refers to ultra-dangerous under-21 prisoners being promoted to adult facilities and Eric would seem to qualify; it takes several guards to subdue him during his violent outbursts, which are frequent, and he knows every trick in the book—greasing himself down, even clamping his teeth down on someone’s privates through his pants—to get the upper hand in fights.
Eric gets in temporary hot water with the black prisoners after he practically kills one of them in a one-on-one fight and has trouble sitting still during group therapy sessions run by an ineffectual volunteer (Rupert Friend). But the central thrust of the script by Jonathan Asser, himself a former prison counselor, stems from the unpredictable dynamic between Eric and his father Neville (a very good Ben Mendelsohn), who’s detained here as well. It’s easy to see where Eric’s belligerent, hot-tempered ways came from, even if the older man may not be as muscularly threatening as he used to be.
The story’s basic dynamics are clear enough because they’re played out in such obvious physical terms, so the viewer can pick up the gist of things. However, it’s impossible to avoid thinking that one is missing many nuances and meanings, not only due to the thick, slang-ridden accents, but due to references, prison-based and otherwise, that inevitably shoot right past anyone not attuned to this sort of talk. It’s a rather frustrating experience to know you’re missing a good bit of what the film has to offer, like watching an unsubtitled film in the slang of a language you’ve only studied for a year or two in school.
But there’s always O’Connell, whose performance is so volatile and scary that you never know when he’ll pop next and what he might do. He’s more than street-smart, he’s jailhouse-smart; the pen is Nick’s natural turf and even if he doesn’t own it, he knows how to use it and have his way there far better than most long-timers. The actor would seem to have live wires running through his whole body and it should be very interesting to follow his career from here on.
Befitting a story that never leaves the prison grounds, production values are rugged.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Production: Sigma Flms
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend, Sam Spruell, Anthony Welsh, David Ajala, Peter Ferdinando, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr, Raphael Sowole, Tommy McDonnell
Director: David Mackenzie
Screenwriter: Jonathan Asser
Producer: Gillian Berrie
Executive producers: Katherine Butler, Sam Lavender, David Mackenzie, James Atherton, Jan Pace, Norman Merry, Peter Hampden
Director of photography: Michael McDonough
Production designer: Tom McCullagh
Costume designer: Susan Scott
Editors: Jake Roberts, Nick Emerson
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