New Much Talked About British Prison Drama STARRED UP hits UK Cinemas: 21 March 2014

 

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When Eric, a young man whose native language is violence, is prematurely moved to an adult jail (“starred up” in prison speak), he enters an environment where secret lines exist between different strata of the pecking order and a careless glance or a word can lead to bloodshed.

When Eric tries to assert himself by going on the attack, the prison kingpin assigns an older man, Nev, to watch over him. Nev, whom Eric has not seen since the age of five, is Eric’s father. Behind bars, Nev has created a new kind of family in the narrow world of the prison wings. He wields considerable authority, but not over his son, who resents Nev’s attempts to control, influence and protect him.

Eric battles to assert himself against the prison officers. He goes through territorial conflicts with other inmates and is forced to challenge the unfamiliar and unwelcome paternal authority of his own father. Through these struggles, he learns that there are smart options beyond hidden razor RupertFriend_smllblades and brutal force. A lone prison psychotherapist, Oliver (Rupert Friend), brings Eric into his therapy group comprising a small, tight unit of inmates who are learning to confront and control their anger and murderous impulses.  They share their pasts in therapy and spar with each other in boxing training and workouts. They offer Eric something he has never experienced before: the promise of trust and maybe even friendship. Oliver and the group help turn a mirror on Eric’s anger and expose its origins in parental abandonment.

Hope and change are strange new forces for Eric: his years coming up through Care, Secure Units and then a Young Offenders Institution have taught him to trust no-one and to attack rather than to listen. Can Eric complete his journey of transformation through the rivalries and hatreds, the visible and invisible barriers that dominate prison life? Can the boy learn enough to save himself and reconcile with his father in any way? As Eric smashes the rules – first with the prison officers and then with the prison kingpin – he becomes marked as “trouble” by both sides, putting himself in grave danger since the officers and the prison mafia are secretly in cahoots, and have ways of making prisoners who are trouble disappear.

About the Film PrisonWalk

Starred Up” is a powerful film that turns an unflinching eye to the cruelty depicted within the fictional prison walls, while at the same time revealing hidden layers of camaraderie and hope amidst the violence. The focus is on emotional truth not stylization or glamorization. Also woven into the narrative are details about prison life that we have not often seen before, details which are revealed here with authority. Despite the tensions within the film, director David Mackenzie’s perspective is ultimately a compassionate one.

Rising star Jack O’ Connell gives Eric an edgy, unpredictable energy that carries much of the story, and his plight is framed by two opposing forces: his father and his therapist. Australian veteran actor Ben Mendelsohn creates an explosive picture of a man twisted by the system and unable to prove himself as a father. Mendelsohn, who gave a terrifying performance in the multi-award-winning “Animal Kingdom”, shows STARRED-UP_Father&Songreat sensitivity beneath the violent façade. At the other extreme is Eric’s therapist, portrayed by Rupert Friend, a character who might just crack, and who may have a secret history of violence. In a way that reflects the protagonist’s own experience, we the audience don’t know who to trust – father, therapist, or neither. 

In an attempt to capture the tension and raw immediacy of the story, Mackenzie shot the film in sequence and edited with a two-editor crew – including long term collaborator Jake Roberts – to get results almost immediately after they were shot.  This energy is amplified by Mackenzie’s careful preparation with the cast who were given the freedom to explore the material and inhabit their characters, producing performances that are alive and unpredictable. 

This, along with the use of an almost fully intact former prison (with subtle and detailed production design by Tom McCulloch) creates a picture of a real environment. This is complemented by cinematographer Michael McDonough ASC, who worked closely with director and cast to capture the atmosphere and nuances of the story, giving it an unexpected human warmth.

With “Starred Up”, we see a filmmaker achieving maturity, paradoxically through his embrace of greater simplicity. We also see the emergence of a new energetic and important talent with O’Connell creating what may be his signature role in years to come. 

The Group

TheGroupAnthony Welsh (“My Brother the Devil”, “Red Tails”, “Comes A Bright Day”), who plays Hassan, Ashley Chin (Victim) who plays Ryan and rising actor David Ajala (“The Dark Knight”, “Fast and Furious”), who plays Tyrone, are in the therapy group set up by Oliver and joined by newcomer Eric.

Anthony and David hadn’t previously worked together but “we did a screen test together,” says Anthony, “and pretty soon we were finishing each other’s sentences. There’s only one scene in which we don’t appear together. That was actually quite emotional.” That instinctive bond is vital to the dynamic of the prison therapy group of which they are key members.

“The whole essence of that group,” says David, “is ‘I won’t give you the answer, you have to find the answer for yourself.’ It’s tough love for Eric. That world is really heightened, claustrophobic. There’s no outside world, which means that every little thing is important. Something that wouldn’t be noticed on the outside just erupts in that environment. You can never switch off.”  Says Anthony: “With all the characters in the film, there’s an outer life, how you carry yourself on the wing and in the group, and then there’s an inner life as well. You see Tyrone and Hassan in their cell, drinking tea, having a little smoke, or working out. That’s intimate. It’s the opposite of how you have to be the rest of the time.”

Director Mackenzie’s plan that the actors should practically live in the prison had benefits says Anthony: “It really took time to think of that place as a film set. The first time I stepped into a cell and the door closed I just stood there for five minutes, trying to take it in, thinking about the people who’d been in there, the writing on the wall… You have to be match fit for this kind of filmmaking. David doesn’t do many cuts; it’s just ‘go again, go again, go again’. I think that keeps it real. You watch this and you think, ‘these guys are serious’.”

GET TO KNOW ‘PRISON SPEAK’ – A GLOSSARY

  • ACKI – fellow Muslim BACON – any type of sex offender BAG HEAD – heroin addict CLUMP – hit
  • CSU (Care and Separation Unit) – solitary confinement DOUBLE BUBBLE – two for one
  • FRAGGLE – vulnerable prisoner
  • GWAP – money
  • KANGA – prison officer
  • KICK OFF BACK DOOR – anal sex
  • MUG OFF – show disrespect OFF – kill
  • STARRED UP – premature transferral from juvenile to adult jail
  • STRAIGHTENER – pre-arranged fist fight
  • TECH – mobile phone TOP – kill

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