Starred Up sees violent 19-year old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) move two years early from a young offender’s institute to adult prison – the passage being referred to as ‘starred up’ – due to his penchant for extreme violence and threat. Although we don’t see his earlier incarceration, it’s not hard to imagine he’s gone from being the ruling Rooster to pondlife, such is the division between the two prisons. In the opening of the film, we see Eric engineer a prison shiv within moments of arriving at his new abode; always prepared and ready for a fight. After becoming a handful and already landing himself in a lot of bother, a young case-worker takes an interest in Eric and tries to help reform and rehabilitate the young prisoner through his anger management group. All does not start peachy. Eric however is unfazed by his move, and remains violent, psychopathic even, towards other inmates and guards alike, which of course ruffles a few feathers in the big house.
To complicate matters, it turns out that Eric has moved into the prison housing his criminal father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who’s already worked himself quite high up the pecking order of prison life, and who has resigned himself to a life behind bars. What starts out as a brutal prison film, slowly unravels into a father-son prison drama, as Nev starts to feel a patriarchal duty to the boy, protecting him from the fatal destiny of many behind bars. However, fatherhood isn’t such a walk in the park, and it’s questionable whether or not Nev’s actions and attempted parenting are more of a hindrance than a help.
As far as British prison films go, Starred Up feels like one of the most accurate depictions – the entire setup is extremely fraught and the mounting tension is always on the cusp of snapping. Ben Mendelsohn delivers another top performance (no surprise), and compounds two of his more recent roles (The Place Beyond the Pines and Animal Kingdom) to give us the unnerving Nev, but it’s Jack O’Connell who’s the real star here, delivering a career-making performance, and packing a punch reminiscent of a young Ray Winstone. [4/5]