Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Starred Up

The prison drama is a commonly revisited genre in cinema, but several such films are not actually about prison. Many are instead about escaping from prison (A Man Escaped, The Great Escape), some are about the unfortunate few to be falsely imprisoned (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) while others though set in prison are more concerned with wider social and political commentary (Hunger).
British director David Mackenzie’s new film Starred Up, however, is categorically about prison. Screenwriter Jonathan Asser draws upon his own experiences working inside a prison to script the drama, and has crafted a story that explores the dynamics between prisoners, and how the institution of the prison fails them.
We enter the world behind bars through 19-year-old Eric (Jack O’Connell), who is being ‘starred up’ – a slang term referring to the transferral to an adult prison  of someone considered too violent for a young offenders unit. His pathologically aggressive nature is made clear very early on when he gets himself into trouble and tirelessly combats with the guards, making him one of the more difficult anti-heroes to relate to.
But – as you’d expect from a good character-driven drama – the film soon presents him as a fully-rounded and sympathetic human being, who is more of a victim than an aggressor. The success of his character development is largely down to youngster Jack O’Connell, who not only plays his character with disarming intensity and forthright physicality, but also lends him a deep inner world with the barest of facial expressions.
Acting alongside Ben Mendelsohn, one of the finest character actors around, he more than holds his own. The relationship between these two is the heart of the film – in a clever twist, it transpires that Mendelsohn’s character Neville, who is serving his own sentence in the prison, is Eric’s father. His presence allows the film to explore how and why Eric ends up in prison, both in terms of his parental influence and the genetic disposition to anger he has inherited.  In a telling scene late on it is revealed that another, non-imprisoned character also struggles with anger management; the implication seems to be that who ends up being put behind bars is largely determined by class.  
As a social problem film, Mackenzie takes pains to shoot everything with an air authenticity. Like fellow British directors Andrea Arnold and (pre-12 Years A Slave) Steve McQueen, he uses naturalistic dialogue, shaky-cam (albeit sparingly) and a silent non-diegetic soundtrack to keep artistic flourishes to a minimum and give a realistic feel to proceedings. This is not a film to sex-up inner-prison conflict, nor to explore anything particularly existential; rather, it is a film that angrily condemns the current institution of crime and punishment, and makes a convincing case for prison to be a place for rehabilitation rather than retribution.  

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