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New Release Review - Starred Up

A violent young offender is transferred to a prison where his estranged father is also incarcerated.

Directed by: David MacKenzie
Starring: Rupert Friend, Jack O'Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Spruell, Peter Ferdinando




Due to his violent nature, 19-year-old Eric (O'Connell) is transferred from a young offenders' institute to an adult prison. Also resident in his new home is his father, Neville (Mendelsohn), whose absence from his son's childhood played a part in the path of crime Eric has chosen. Eric finds himself torn between a group of young inmates, who are attempting to reform their characters with the help of voluntary worker Oliver (Friend), and his Father, who wants Eric to join himself in working for Spencer (Ferdinando), a powerful crimelord who effectively runs the prison with the aid of crooked Governer Hayes (Spruell).
I have to admit I had a lot of reservations prior to seeing Starred Up. British movies set in the world of crime have been going through a two decade long rough patch, thanks to the success of Guy Ritchie and his "Mockney" sub-Tarantino yarns. The average UK crime drama is now aimed at the Friday night six-pack and curry market, with the likes of Danny Dyer unconvincingly throwing their weight around and loudly pronouncing the C-word with an "A". Jack O'Connell, the leading man of this film, has been in his share of these films, though he's certainly a far better actor than Dyer, as his standout performance here proves.
Director David MacKenzie has a growing knack for subverting expectations. I expected little from his 2011 film, Perfect Sense, and left the screening with a knot in my stomach after being put through an emotional ringer. In both movies, MacKenzie creates a sense of impending doom. In this case, the paranoid atmosphere of prison is ramped up to an unbearable level of tension. You're never sure which characters you should trust and even the film's leading man isn't clear-cut. We can understand why he's behaving in an aggressive, antisocial manner but his actions make him difficult to warm to. Thankfully, first time screenwriter Jonathan Asser creates a fully realized and fascinating character and O'Connell's performance is mesmeric, as is that of Mendelsohn, an Aussie actor who, since the early nineties, has quietly built up an impressive CV of supporting roles in his native Australia (Animal Kingdom), the US (The Place Beyond the Pines, Killing them Softly) and now the UK.
MacKenzie has an eye for visual storytelling that few of his British contemporaries can match. The opening 15 minutes of Starred Up contain barely a word of dialogue yet both the central character and the world he finds himself in are conveyed brilliantly through spot-on editing and camera placement. Asser's script is a fine example of showing rather than telling, gloriously free of expository dialogue. Scottish cinematographer Michael McDonough moves his camera through the halls of the prison with the grace of a prowling panther, using the limited space to his advantage in the same way he exploited the suburban home of 2010's under-rated animal attack movie Burning Bright. If you want exquisite tracking shots in a confined area, McDonough's your man.
If you've ever had a bizarre inkling for prison time, Starred Up will certainly change your mind. You will, however, leave the film wishing you could spend more time on the inside with these characters.
8/10


Eric Hillis

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