Jack O’Connell (the lead in Angelina Jolie’s upcoming Unbroken) plays Eric, a troubled 19 year old youth from London reassigned to an adult prison for his aggressive behavior. While making enemies of the guards as well as his fellow inmates, he comes face to face with the one man who may be able to soften him — his dad. Eric’s father, Nev (Ben Mendelsohn) is a powerful person in the prisoner hierarchy. Also trying to get through to the boy is a psychiatrist named Oliver (Rupert Friend). A man whose peaceful “let’s talk it out” methods aren’t entirely embraced by the authorities in charge.
Starred Up is written by Jonathan Asser, a real therapist turned screenwriter. The account is based on his “encounter groups” for problem cases at Wandsworth Prison in London where he attempted to pacify violent criminals. Right from the beginning, our protagonist is manufacturing a shank only seconds after entering his jail cell. Shortly thereafter he brutally assaults an innocent inmate. Director David Mackenzie does two things really well. First perfectly establishes the character. Then he details his temperament to everyone around him. It’s a captivating watch, Yes it’s a gritty portrait, but Starred Up isn’t the most brutal display of incarceration I‘ve ever seen. (The HBO TV series Oz and those jail sequences in American History X come to mind.) Although it could possibly be the most corrupt view. There are a lot of unchecked abuses going on in this joint. At first I thought the penitentiary’s main kingpin Spencer (Peter Ferdinando) was an employee there because he had so much power. Convicts regularly get in altercations with nary a warden in sight. Perhaps that’s just as well since the guards seem to be more of a threat to the inmates than their fellow detainees.
Starred Up is extremely solid. The validity of Jonathan Asser’s screenplay comes through in every scene. Not just in handling the atmosphere with sincerity, but for extracting genuine emotion. Ben Mendelsohn and Jack O’Connell are extraordinarily good. Their interaction is infused with subtlety and nuance. As his estranged father, Nev tries to give his son some life lessons to help him from becoming a permanent resident there. It’s a real father-son relationship as opposed to a metaphorical one. I don’t see that often in this setting. They act the roles to perfection. I suggest a primer on British prison slang prior to watching, however, starting with that title. Starred up refers to young offenders whose conduct is so violent that they’re prematurely transferred from a juvenile institution to an adult one. Gwap is money, prison officers are kangas, and to mug off is to show disrespect. All of this makes the dialogue a little inscrutable, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The authenticity is appreciated and it adds to what makes Starred Up the credible drama that it is.