A Review of David Mackenzie’s Starred Up: Gritty, Realistic, and Well-Acted

Starred Up review

Film: Starred Up
Director: David Mackenzie
Primary Cast: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend,
US Release Date: 27 August 2014

The Story
Eric (O’Connell), a teenage prisoner with a talent for violence and a history of outbursts is transferred from a juvenile facility to an adult one. Soon after arriving, he accidentally injures a fellow prisoner, and a voluntary therapist, Oliver (Friend), asks him to join his group class. One of the prison administrators does not believe that Oliver’s form of therapy will do anything to help Eric, and tells him that he has only one chance to improve the brutal teenager’s behavior. Being transferred to the adult facility also forces Eric into the presence of his father, Neville (Mendelsohn), who is not at all close to Eric, but is nearly just as violent

Quick Take
David Mackenzie’s Starred Up is a gripping and effective prison drama that combines a strong screenplay with complex performances. Though it has its more markedly emotional moments, the film is built on the realistic and the human, and is more interesting and impactful than one might expect.

The Review
Watching ’71 (which is pretty good) most certainly influenced my recent decision to use the last day of my Amazon Prime trial to watch Starred Up. While Jack O’Connell is the most obvious thing tying the two films together, they also share a number of lines that were virtually unintelligible to my pathetic American ears. Luckily, a few brief moments of confusion, didn’t prevent either film from leaving an impact.

That said, Starred Up is better than ’71 (to be fair to ’71, I really shouldn’t even be comparing them). It’s a tighter, more tonally consistent film. On top of that, it’s also a better showcase for Jack O’Connell’s acting abilities.

While we’re on the subject of Jack O’Connell, he is crucial to Starred Up‘s success. As Eric, he exudes a certain raw energy that’s almost palpable. Just as one of the prisoners says of Eric, O’Connell is someone who is full of potential. In Starred Up, he is as threatening as he is confused and vulnerable. He may need guidance, but he’s also so full of latent power and ability (which often manifests as violence) that, despite the deep sympathy that viewers are likely to feel for him, he’s almost frightening. Even when Eric himself is clearly lost, O’Connell exudes a certain presence and swagger that will probably earn him a prolific career. Though I’ll probably skip Unbroken for now, I look forward to seeing him in more challenging and emotionally complex roles in the future.

Another stand-out performance in Starred Up belongs to the under-appreciated Ben Mendelsohn. As Eric’s (largely absent and incarcerated) father, Neville, Mendelsohn evokes an impressive combination of sympathy and disgust. Mendelsohn is an incredibly talented character actor, and his penchant for playing dark and somewhat opaque characters works well here, and the scenes in which he appears are some of the most gripping (and interesting) in Starred Up.

Another aspect of Starred Up that deserves praise, is its tight script. Penned by Jonathan Asser, the film’s screenplay is both intense and intelligent and features a great deal of incredibly natural dialogue to boot. Moreover, the film does not shy away from that which is messy. The film presents a believable (and thus, sometimes hard to understand) portrait of its troubled (but human) characters and, for the most part, it does not feel contrived.

Overall, Starred Up is a sharp, layered, and memorable prison drama that uses its rather limited setting to explore a wide range of human emotions, relationships, and problems. In the film, prison is a crucible in which boys are turned into men and where men are forced to face themselves. The film doesn’t lay on the sentiment too heavily, but its exploration of father/son and mentor/mentee dynamics adds a welcome layer of emotional complexity. While the film is primarily a character study, it also finds ways to comment on cycles of violence, the effects of abuse, and certain aspects of the prison system as well.

Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. Feel to leave a comment below (I love movies more than anything, but talking about them is a close second). You can also keep up with me in between posts on twitter.

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