Starred Up: Film Review

 

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Written by Leslie Pitt
20.03.14

Starring: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend, David Ajala, Anthony Welsh & Ashley Chin

One of the reasons Alan Clarke’s Scum remains in the British psyche, is down to how relentlessly unyielding the film is. Like so much of Clarke’s work, the film details a broken social system and its disparate underclass with a potency that has become difficult to match. Texts such as NEDS (2011) and the works of Shane Meadows have come exceedingly close. We’ve also seen the London gangster movie (and football hooligan sub-genre) cumbersomely littering supermarkets everywhere yet do little to penetrate the consciousness further. Clarke’s film remains a constant reminder of the some of the sordid crevices we like to ignore.

Starred Up enforces itself upon the viewer like a 35 year old update of Clarke’s original texts. Infused with a fierceness sparked by Jack O’Connell’s savagely raw central performance, Starred Up does well to pose difficult questions to current justice system without resorting to easy answers. Despite the grimness of the subject matter, the portrayal of such a difficult protagonist is a riveting one.

Based on screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s own experiences as a volunteer for HM Wandsworth, Starred Up illustrates the difficulties of rehabilitation which was seen with Clarke’s earlier Scum.  Higher-ups clash over their convictions of how to deal with the prisoners. O’Connell’s Eric is powder keg waiting to blow, but the screws can only envision cruelty as discipline. Oliver (deceptively played by Rupert Friend) spies the possibility of reformation but is held-back by red tape.  Eric’s father Neville (Mendelsohn) is a particularly dangerous part of the equation, as he is the epitome of the institutionalised man.

As with such narratives, Eric has  demons and angels on either flank pushing him towards the side they favour, highlighting the films main theme – control. Through the complicated prison hierarchy, -Jack O Connell playing Eric and Ben Mendelsohn playing Nevilleto the anger management tasks given during the group therapy, nearly every scene is an example of combating or maintaining control over masculinity and aggression.  David MacKenzie and cinematographer Michael McDonough encompass this by encasing the film in tight, cagey close ups.

It’s O’Connell that is the main draw here, with a snarling performance that is reminiscent of Tim Roth’s teeth gnashing display in Made in Britain. O’ Connell’s Eric doesn’t hold the same intelligence as Trevor, but inhabits a ferocity that’s no less intense. O’ Connell, whose best known as mouthy delinquent James Cook in TV’s Skins, continues his impressive work here, balancing his aggression with the same devil may care swagger that made him the most memorable characters of the Skins series.  Ben Mendelsohn once again delivers his own particular brand of manic energy to a father role that could have been a lot more typically conveyed. Much like the films plot – which comes across more like rugged vignettes than a conventional plot – Mendelsohn adds an unpredictability to scenes that ratchets the tension to formidable levels.

MacKenzie’s film also delivers wise choices with the lesser known supporting cast. David Ajala and TheGroupAnthony Walsh (My Brother the Devil) invigorate supporting roles that are often considered as thankless. Their characters are not just lip service to a white anti-hero, but well formed secondary characters. The suggestion that these characters have benefited from therapy is a factor of importance when we place their ethnicity into consideration. The sight of urban characters providing an alternative to violence, while not being nurtured themselves is an important and welcoming element.

At its lesser moments Starred Up comes off as slightly televisual and those well versed in British film may wonder why we need another grim and gritty feature. However, the film at its best is a tense and authentic drama with a surprising amount of dark humour. Starred Up observes the limits of control being pushed to breaking point with effectiveness.  MacKenzie never takes his eyes off the prize, dealing ideas of civility along with the rattled cages of the snarling dogs. Many bemoan the British fixation on grit and grime. The thing is, it’s tough when we make them quite well.

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