I’ve frequently sung the praises of Bronson, a stylized biopic about one of England’s most notorious prisoners, but Starred Up, another British prison drama, does something that’s arguably even more impressive with the same milieu: it captures the madness of a societal menace without ever losing sight of his humanity.
Aside from its setting, Starred Up is also similar to Bronson in that it features a breakout performance. Tom Hardy was the exciting new face there, while here we have a young Jack O’Connell. He plays Eric Love, a youth offender who has been moved into an adult facility – “starred up,” as the lingo goes. There he meets a host of new adversaries, including his estranged, imprisoned father (Ben Mendelsohn).
There is a lot of lingo in the movie, much of it indecipherable to this Statesider. Yet Starred Up, written by Jonathan Asser and directed by David Mackenzie, is such a minimalist production – mostly built around detailed physical action within a confined space – that the dialogue isn’t all that crucial. In fact, in its relative austerity, Starred Up may have less in common with Bronson than it does with A Man Escaped, the classic 1956 prison drama from Robert Bresson.
As such, O’Connell is working with limited tools; language isn’t really at play. And so it’s appropriate that Mackenzie opens the film with a shaky, overhead shot of Eric’s head as it hangs between his legs. He’s awaiting processing at the adult prison, a procedure the movie captures in humiliating detail. Through it all, Eric maintains a veneer of tough-guy composure and purposeful nonchalance. We do, however, catch a wince of vulnerability flicker across his face when he’s ordered to squat as part of the contraband check. Then, alone in his cell, he offers another glimpse of self-doubt by letting slip a grimace of self-disgust. Notice how quickly he glances past the cell’s mirror.
O’Connell’s performance is built upon these little tells – brief peeks at Eric’s interior life, which he desperately keeps hidden beneath the bravado and rage. It’s the latter quality that mostly brings Bronson to mind, for when Eric goes off – and you never know exactly what’s going to instigate it – he’s a tornado of flying limbs, deafening yells and bared teeth (the latter of which are put to excruciating use on a guard in one tense scene).
O’Connell’s performance is built upon little tells – brief peeks at Eric’s interior life.
What’s notable about Starred Up is the way the movie balances these visceral, violent set pieces with visions of calm, and even beauty. The film’s visual scheme, partly devised by Winter’s Bone cinematographer Michael McDonough, is mostly gritty and bare, yet every once in a while the camera pauses to capture Eric at relative rest in his cell, with the sunlight streaming through the window on the far wall. During one such scene he’s blowing smoke rings into the light; in another he’s leaping, almost playfully, into the air, his silhouette intermittently blocking the sun’s rays. If much of Starred Up’s hardscrabble aesthetic recalls the movies of the Dardenne brothers (The Kid with a Bike, Lorna’s Silence), these reveries are reminiscent of Terrence Malick.
They don’t last long, however, as this prison is mostly a den of uneasy alliances. As Eric’s father, Mendelsohn is his usual electric self: wiry, untrustworthy and lethal. You’re never quite sure if he’s set on protecting his son or using him as a pawn in the constant power game being played with the guards, the warden (Sam Spruell) and the other prisoners.
Eventually Eric finds one place of respite: a therapy group led by a well-intentioned but seriously outmanned counselor named Oliver (Rupert Friend). These sessions are electric, as the prisoners walk a tightrope between hope and violence (David Ajala is especially good as a glowering peacemaker). When the men teeter – when a casual insult threatens to incite a brawl – Oliver can do little more than hover in the middle, looking down, desperately wishing that the better selves he’s been introducing them to will win out.
If the Eric-Oliver relationship flirts at times with the movie cliché of the inspirational teacher, Starred Up eventually rights itself onto its more natural course: grim, harsh realism. The final scenes, meanwhile, strike a nice balance between ambiguity (especially the last moment between Eric and his father) and a tentative hopefulness. I left the movie wrung out, but also craning – as Eric does – for a crucial glimpse out the window, for some promise beyond the cell.