Thursday 21 November 2019

Editor's Choice: Starred Up

Cert 16

Actor Jack O'Connell in a scene from Starred Up
Actor Jack O'Connell in a scene from Starred Up

PRISON is no fairytale world," purred Morgan Freeman 20 years ago in The Shawshank Redemption, a fact enforced since that film's resplendence by a host of excellent but dour prison dramas such as Un Prophete and Hunger. However, should you need reminding of the prison saga's potential for primal, sub-zero angst, look no further than this brilliant release from UK director David Mackenzie.

Filmed in Belfast's Crumlin Road jail, it deals with Eric (Jack O'Connell), a 19-year-old bad egg unfazed by being "starred up" – upgraded from young offenders to adult prison. Rage and malice course through O'Connell's performance as his character quickly establishes himself as an inmate who can physically intimidate prison guards. It won't work on his father and long-term inmate Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) who has been asked by the powers that be to try and bring Eric back in line.

That dynamic is at the film's core, but the triptych is completed by volunteer counsellor Oliver (Rupert Friend, essaying the real-life experiences of writer Jonathan Asser) who runs the discussion group Eric must attend. Shards of light peek through as Oliver calms Eric to a simmer and solidarity from other attendees brings whatever scant humanity prison life can sustain.

This is right up there with the best the genre has ever produced. Friend, Mendelsohn and O'Connell are stunning in a host of scenes that are indelible, not for the explicitness of their violence (and Starred Up is not for the faint of heart) but for the tautness of the dialogue and the many sub-themes waging their various wars. New discussions are opened within an oft-used template, which is an achievement in itself.


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