Starred Up review (Blu-ray)

I love a good prison movie.

Whether it’s the operatic doom of American Me, the white-knuckle tension of A Man Escaped, the indomitable spirit of Cool Hand Luke, the fiery apocalypse of Carandiru, the spareness of Escape From Alcatraz, the arty abstraction of Silent Scream an Ghosts Of The Civil Dead or the harsh, gritty reality of Scum, On The Yard and A Sense Of Freedom you can’t beat a good prison movie. Four decades on, Porridge is still the best sitcom ever to grace the boob tube and middle-class Guardianistas can furiously masturbate all they want over The Wire and Breaking Bad, but the best TV drama of the past 20 years, hands down, was Tom Fontana’s Oz.

I’m a recidivist, a repeat offender. I love prison movies so much I even watched Greenfingers and Lucky Break. And if there were any justice in the world the producers of both films would be slopping out right now for crimes against cinema.

Prison is a closed loop, a sealed environment, a stage on which any tale can be told – the more fiendishly Jacobean the better. The tropes may be clichéd – the cocky rookie, the world-weary old lag who takes him under his wing, the top dog, the corrupt, vicious screws, the treacherous waters of the yard, the dangers of dropping the soap in the shower – but they work. Give me a vaguely homoerotic tale of honour, violence and (possibly) redemption and I’m there. Some of the best prison movies however are about parenting, often figuratively, the mentor/rookie relationships of many prison films (The Animal Factory, The Shawshank Redemption, The Escapist, A Prophet) are as much about surrogate fathers and sons as they are love stories. With the brilliant Starred Up, director Mackenzie takes a more literal approach, delivering a ferocious prison movie that places centre stage the volatile relationship between an estranged father and son reconnecting after being banged up together.

Tough, brash and violent, 19-year-old young offender, Eric (O’Connell) finds himself in big school when he’s "starred up", the practice in the British penal system of transferring unruly teenage offenders to adult prisons to finish their sentences. A cocky powder-keg just looking for an excuse to explode, Eric’s almost instantly in trouble, drawing both the jaundiced, watchful eye of his estranged father Nev (Mendelsohn) and the enmity of brutal, venal head screw Hayes (Spruell) after battering another prisoner over an imagined slight and having to be subdued by a mob of prison officers. With the warden threatening to warehouse the defiant youngster, to effectively bury him, and with the help (and hindrance!) of Nev, social worker Oliver (Friend), who at one point has to talk Eric out of releasing the prison officer whose genitals he has clamped between his teeth, desperately tries to reach Eric, teaching him how to manage the anger raging inside him through group therapy sessions, interacting with older, more experienced, predominately black, prisoners. But by crossing the colour lines and pissing off the prison’s Top Dog, the youngster’s made powerful enemies and time is running out to save him…

From the opening scene as he struts defiantly into prison the audience should be in no doubt that in O’Connell they’re watching the future of British cinema. Always the best thing in whatever he’s in – from the thuggish teen gang leader menacing nice middle class campers in Eden Lake to his breakthrough role as the swaggering Cook in Skins – as O’Connell delivers a taut, nuanced, mercurial performance that recalls the pugnacious, tough guy vulnerability of James Cagney coupled with the restless energy and sensitivity reminiscent of a young Sean Penn.  Despite all his front, Eric’s ultimately a son who craves his father’s attention and the film is a battle for his soul. Ably supported by the excellent Friend who’s never been better and the always dependable Mendelsohn who brings a dangerous rattlesnake unpredictability to Nev (despite struggling with the Estuary accent), O’Connell crackles with electricity, owning the film.  Poised on the brink of going supernova, he may just be Britain’s first bona fide movie star since Michael Caine and it’s little wonder that Angelina Jolie chose him to carry her latest film as a director.

Drawing on his own experiences as a former voluntary therapist at HMP Wandsworth, working with some of Britain’s most violent prisoners, Asser’s script has an abrasive, gritty quality and Mackenzie, one of the most genuinely eclectic, interesting directors working in the UK today, delivers a raw, graphic portrait of the dangers of life on the inside that’s as precise as a Swiss watch; the almost matter-of-fact intricacy of the scenes of O’Connell’s young warrior preparing for battle – fashioning a shank from a melted toothbrush and razor blade, stocking up on baby oil with which to lather his naked torso before taking on the riot squad – suffused with a mounting dread, the explosions of violence, particularly a slippery shower attack, sickening in their unpredictable bone-crunching, flesh-rending brutality. But Mackenzie’s interested in more than just delivering Britain’s best prison movie since Nicolas Winding Refn’s blistering 2008 Bronson; he’s turning an unflinching, anthropologist’s eye on the harsh, punitive iniquities of the UK’s prison system which values punishment over rehabilitation, immersing the audience in a nihilistic, Darwinian world that dehumanises convicts and prison officers alike. 

Taut, tense and thrilling, featuring an almost primal performance of powerhouse intensity from O’Connell, Mackenzie’s Starred Up is a bleak, visceral, bruising experience.

EXTRAS ★★½ There's the behind-the-scenes featurette Starred Up (10:16); an interview with O'Connell and Mackenzie (10:09); some behind-the-scenes footage (3:36); a Cast & Crew featurette (7:45); and the theatrocal trailer.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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