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Father Figured

Starred Up (2013)

Sigma Films

British cinema has a long and distinguished tradition of prison dramas, from the slang-’n’-sodomy staple of Alan Clarke and Roy Minton’s “Scum” through to the more emotive exploration of Michael Winterbottom’s “Everyday.” Such a wearingly established genre has it become that prospective audiences could be forgiven for believing they really don’t need to watch another entry, but such an assumption would be badly misplaced. Director David Mackenzie and debut writer Jonathan Asser put a new spin on the genre that breaks free of the monotonous cycle of British social realism which always assumes that each new film has to be grimmer, tougher, meaner than all those that have gone before.

Which is not to say the film isn’t satisfyingly savage from the outset: Eric (an excellent Jack O’Connell) is a problem offender who’s been “starred up” (i.e., elevated to adult prison) from juvenile detention due to his uncontrollable behavior. Following a wordless sequence in which Eric enters his new cell and enacts a mystifying but obviously routine itinerary of survival safeguards, he wastes no time before causing a violent incident that attracts the attention of the riot shields and pepper sprays, in a brilliantly brutal sequence that sets the tone of the film to come.

As the wardens lead Eric away to solitary confinement, they pass by a prison therapy group and the resulting interjection makes therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend) a witness to any possible system abuses; a civilian outsider with momentary leverage. In a resulting meeting Oliver negotiates a deal: If he can convince Eric to attend his therapy group and make some tangible process, then the troublesome teen gets to stay on the ward.

The wardens agree, and they’re not the only ones wanting to keep the peace. We also learn that Eric’s estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), is in the same prison and is a notable figure in its hierarchy. So obsessed are the prisoners with maintaining equilibrium that Eric’s arrival becomes a source of anxiety: His status as the son of one of the longest-serving and respected tough-nuts means that any outburst of his explosive temper is almost certain to tweak the fragile web of relationships within the ward.

The battle for Eric soul is underway from this point on, and the key tension of the film is revealed: Can the educated, middle-class Oliver make a breakthrough with Eric, or will the long-absent father be the only one who can somehow tame his son by offering a gateway into the prison’s traditional power structures?

At this point viewers may be wary that the film is aping the form of the classroom drama, with Oliver standing as the maverick teacher attempting to turn around the fortunes of a hopeless pupil and Neville as, say, the persuasive local gangster offering a different kind of education.

However, the film largely avoids the obvious avenues down which we think it’ll travel. We do get a few scenes inside Oliver’s therapy sessions, but they hardly paint Oliver as some kind of saintly hero. If anything, he seems extremely fortunate to survive most of them. His key tactic isn’t to confront the roots of his prisoners’ anger, but simply to condition them to work through their rage in a controlled environment. Mr. Asser’s script seems to assert that the notion of saving face and demanding respect isn’t just a side issue that causes problems in prisons, but is one of the key factors in the majority of prisoners’ inability to reform. One of Oliver’s sessions involves a long dispute about the ultimate respect issue — slagging off each other’s mums — and late in the film the prison’s big daddy, Spencer (Peter Ferdinando), tells Eric that the inability to countenance loss of respect should be viewed as a sign of leadership.

Most of us, of course, worked through these issues before the age of 10, and that’s exactly Messrs. Asser and Mackenzie’s point. “Starred Up” is a distinctive prison drama because although the inmates are violent, belligerent and occasionally disgusting figures they’re also sensitive, vulnerable and childlike individuals. It’s almost implied that the wardens’ key motivation in maintaining order isn’t to avert the possibility of riots and subversion, but more to ensure the prisoners don’t all hurt each other’s feelings. It’s almost more like watching the management of a highly sensitive troupe of bitching, backstabbing ballerinas. It may be an old trick to make Spencer the fearsome prison overlord the nerdiest-looking inmate of the lot with his cozy cardigans and spectacles, but it’s completely suitable here. One of the most pertinent and affecting lines of dialogue in the film occurs when Neville shouts in anguish for someone to fetch Spencer’s asthma inhaler following a fight, sounding more like a regretful plea that a playground tussle has gone too far rather than an exchange between the two most hardened criminals on the block.

In fact the perfect casting of Mr. Ferdinando as Spencer, allowing him to utilize the distinctly bookish psychosis he’s employed in other films, is just one example of Shaheen Baig’s masterclass in effective casting. Likewise, nobody does angsty edginess quite like Mr. Mendelsohn; and when his style is applied to a suitable role, as it is here as Neville, he’s perhaps the most compulsively watchable actor of his generation. What’s also refreshing about him is that, in our age of mechanically drilled elocution and perfected accents, Mr. Mendelsohn only makes a halfhearted attempt to infuse his broad Melbourne tones with a hint of cockney, and it makes not one jot of difference to the film’s overall authenticity.

If Mr. Mendelsohn’s presence suggests the film’s producers had “Animal Kingdom” in mind to begin with, then it’s no surprise to find “Starred Up” replicating the earlier film’s structure as well, with its focus on a serpentine sequence of short punchy dramatic scenes over the traditional thriller style of lulls interspersed with crescendos. The film moves seamlessly from one tightly focused scene to the next with unremitting pace, prowling along the ward corridors and up and down the stairs from one tense encounter to the next.

Visually, the film also breaks with convention by discarding the overused grey palette usually reserved for prison dramas, instead marrying the sweaty flesh tones of its protagonists against the rusty browns of the fantastically ominous Victorian prison setting.

Mr. Mackenzie has had an uneven and unpredictable career up to now, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that he had two films released within a month of each other in 2011, one of which (“Perfect Sense”) was a moderate critical (if not commercial) success, while the other was a barely released reputed travesty (“You Instead”).

“Starred Up” isn’t just Mr. Mackenzie’s film by some distance; it laps his other work several times around the field, waving ostentatiously in Usain Bolt-style as it rallies across the line. It proves perhaps that given the correct confluence of actors, script, producers and directors an unlikely minor classic can emerge from just about anywhere, which “Starred Up” certainly is.


Opens on March 21, 2014 in Britain and on Aug. 27, 2014 in the United States

Directed by David Mackenzie; written by Jonathan Asser; director of photography, Michael McDonough; edited by Jake Roberts and Nick Emerson; production design by Tom McCullagh; costumes by Susan Scott; produced by Gillian Berrie; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures (Britain) and Tribeca Film (United States). Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. This film is rated 18 by B.B.F.C. and not rated by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Jack O’Connell (Eric Love), Ben Mendelsohn (Neville Love), Rupert Friend (Oliver Baumer), Sam Spruell (Deputy Governor Haynes), Anthony Welsh (Hassan), David Ajala (Tyrone) and Peter Ferdinando (Dennis Spencer).


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