Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Starred Up

Director: David Mackenzie

Writer: Jonathan Asser

Cast: Jack O'Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend

Release: 21 Mar 2014     Rating: 18     Running Time: 105 mins

Charlie Chan Says: Young Turk joins his Old Man in the Tin Pail
                                  Where work on rehab plan is doomed to fail


Written by first-time screenwriter and performance artist Jonathan Asser, this no-holds-barred drama about a violent young man transferred prematurely from juvenile detention to an adult jail is a fierce if one-sided critique of a dysfunctional prison system which priorities segregation and punishment over understanding and rehabilitation.

Eric (played by hunk of the month Jack O’Connell, who turns in a finely nuanced performance) is damaged goods: the product of a horrific childhood in care, involving sexual abuse, rootlessness and neglect. To say he has anger management issues is like saying the Tories are a shower of See You Next Tuesday Sadists.


In the care of a juvenile detention centre he would be the kingpin; but in the hurly burly of an adult jail he is literally a bottom feeder. Before you can say “how would you like my fist rammed up your ring”, the bare knuckle fights, slashings and stabbings where you "fight for the principle without losing pride" escalate to the point of no return. He faces one of five options: murder, suicide, transfer, keep the head down and do the time, or rehabilitation.

In the end he chooses neither, but is forcefully persuaded by his father (a lifer and “poof prisoner” who is ever so conveniently in the same wing of the same jail at the same time) to attend “school”, an experimental rehabilitation group based on the writer’s own experiences as a prison therapist in which violent impulses are allowed to develop in confrontation with others and then de-escalated through a series of non-contact interventions designed to induce shame.


Tentative progress is made and a sliver of hope glints on the horizon. But then World War III explodes into action when Eric’s father’s dormant paternal instincts kick into action and unleash a tirade of bloody violence against corrupt prison officers, duplicitous old cons and inner demons which drive both father and son.

Part-Greek tragedy and part-indictment of the punitive and dog eats dog prison system, Starred Up is a gripping account of life behind bars which  despite being marred with a repetitive structure characterised by periods of charged silence broken by frantic bursts of action  unfolds with gritty realism, subtlety and heart.

Verdict: 3/5

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