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Starred Up: family drama on the inside

Sometimes the best or most interesting releases of the year fly under the radar. In The Catch Up, we shine a light on the films and albums we missed at first glance.

British prison drama Starred Up sounds akin to the conventional melodrama of white male angst. There's a father-son relationship ridden with past troubles and anxiety, sweary rowdy criminals and savage violence. Yet, surprisingly, Starred Up's tendency for pathos in a cruel world results in a uniquely arresting film.

The film's title itself refers to a prison slang where violent young offenders are prematurely transferred from a juvenile institution to an adult prison. Starred Up's protagonist, 19-year-old Eric (Skins's Jack O'Connell) follows this route, and his new prison facility also happens to house his estranged father, Nev (Ben Mendelsohn). Hugely cocky and wildly aggressive, Eric quickly gets into trouble, catching the eye of Oliver (Homeland's Rupert Friend), the prison's psychotherapist. Eric and Nev's relationship is already badly damaged, but it gets put to the test with the harsh realities of gang politics, amoral administrators and violent rituals.

From corrupt prison guards to menacing inmates, Starred Up never shies away from the cold brutality of penitentiary life, but it firmly grounds itself in its proclivity for raw sincerity. Jonathan Asser's script shines with its sharply authentic voice. The dialogue between characters is solid and especially memorable when Eric and Nev are exchanging vulgar insults. Director David Mackenzie's portrayal of empathetic, flawed characters enhances the film's sentimentality too.

For marketing reasons or otherwise, Starred Up has been largely overlooked this year, but O' Connell may be something of a rising star, having landed the leading role of Angelina Jolie's forthcoming Unbroken. His acting abilities can be seen in his superb portrayal of Eric, his loud testosterone-driven demeanour acts as a foil to Mendelsohn's brooding hostility. O' Connell and Mendelsohn are terrific together — as the film delves deeper, their onscreen relationship becomes both painful and heartbreaking.

Starred Up's uncompromising depiction of life behind bars can be seen as a wounded take the dehumanising nature of prison life. However, the drama draws credibility from its disposition for emotional moments, be it subtle instances of comic relief or the tragic outcome of a meaningless fight. Starred Up is brazenly full of heart, resulting in an engrossing cinematic experience.

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