Stay in school – ★★★
Director David Mackenzie’s previous work wouldn’t really have suggested he was going to tackle a gritty prison drama. Just over a decade ago he brought us the racey but memorable Young Adam which put him firmly on the map as a director to watch. Since then he’s failed to deliver with films like Perfect Sense (recipient of a ★ Spooool.ie review), Ashton Kutcher vehicle Spread and a film that I think I’ve seen but can’t remember a thing about – Hallam Foe. So bottom line, following that light tripe Mackenzie had to win a lot of people over with Starred Up.
The film stars Channel 4’s Skins star Jack O’Connell as Eric, a young offender transferred into a prison where his father (played by Spooool favourite Ben Mendelsohn) is amongst his incarcerated peers. Helping Eric work through his anger issues is Rupert Friend (you’ll recognise him from TV’s Homeland) as Oliver, a volunteer counsellor. No prison drama is complete without a shady governor with questionable motives and a supporting cast of “am i meant to be nice to this guy or beat him up” actors.
O’Connell is truly sensational here and deserves whatever “rising star” or “best newbie” awards that will come his way. He was also in 300: Rise of an Empire this month and if he can continue to find that challenging balance between blockbuster and indie then he could have quite the career. There’s a scene very early on where he challenges a group of guards and wins the bout with a combination of baby oil, table legs and an aerial from a portable radio. You’d be gunning for him if you manage to forget he’s a killer. O’Connell can get a laugh too and the film’s got a lot more humour than you would have expected, look out for the prison guard by the name of Johnson and the crotch-related predicament he finds himself in…
Starred Up sets up its stall very early on a work dealing front and centre with father-son issues and the challenging dynamics that can develop over the years if they’re forced apart. There’s enough of a visual similarity between O’Connell and Mendelsohn to buy into them as being related and over the next ninety minutes, matching character traits (and flaws) slowly reveal themselves. The thrilling climax in solitary is a terrific showcase for both actors.
Where the film falls down is in everything that isn’t revolving around that father-son relationship. The film was written by Jonathan Asser who worked as a volunteer therapist in a prison so he’s writing this from first hand experience. Unfortunately he’s never written a film before so there’s major pacing problems throughout. It’s hard to achieve something that feels like it’s slowly in a hurry but that’s how you’re left feeling an hour into proceedings. With a little help at the typewriter there could have been a script strong enough to support the acting talent on show. We’ve become used to seeing the elaborate social systems that develop in prisons through top notch TV shows like “Orange is the New Black”, “Oz” and – yes – “Prison Break”. These shows put time and effort into developing big casts of characters and when Starred Up is compared to them it feels like it would have been better served as a 3 or 4 part drama on ITV.
A final word for the Belfast prison where the film was shot. Mackenzie’s direction and Michael McDonough’s cinematography makes it look as grim, unappealing and dangerous as you could possibly hope for. Not sure there’ll be a better advertisement to keep teens in school this year.