Porridge with nutcases
[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=That Film Guy&asin=B00IYSEV2I][/pullquote] Director David Mackenzie and lead Jack O’Connell combine to present a brutally realistic and sometime sentimental view of prison life in Starred Up.
Young offender Eric (O’Connell) is starred up, meaning that he was too uncontrollable for juvenile detention and is moved into prison. Seemingly unable and unwilling to control his anger, he immediately causes trouble for the guards and inmates alike. After an unfortunate but vicious incident he is offered an olive branch by a prison anger therapist (Rupert Friend) to join his group and to learn to control himself. Meanwhile he is also offered assistance by his long-term inmate father (Ben Mendelsohn) who is high-up in the corrupt inner workings of the prison. Torn between familial loyalties, a desire to learn how to interact with people and his own anger Eric finds it difficult to make the right choice for his own future.
Prison dramas have in the past focused on inmates who are wrongfully imprisoned, or who are deep down nice but thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Not so in Starred Up. There is no doubt that all of the inmates deserve to be where they are, and in a lot of cases have accepted this and learnt to survive behind the prison walls.
Despite this director Mackenzie and script-writer Jonathan Asser (himself a former prison therapist) clearly care about their characters and while it would be easy to dismiss them as criminals and thugs, there is a clear sense that they are people who deserve the time and effort to help them.
It the heart of the film is Jack O’Connell, a revelatory tornado of violence and rage. Like his early acting work as Cookie in Skins, he is equally convincing as an unstoppable force and a mistreated youth. You can’t help but like him for long stretches, but then his anger gets the better of him and it becomes clear that he is a danger to himself and more importantly others. Cleverly playing with you emotions you’ll find yourself glad that he is being taught how to control himself and interact with others, but even more glad that he is behind bars and not walking down the same street as you.
The film opens with the clanking sounds of doors opening and shutting as you would expect and conjures up memories of TV sitcom Porridge. While comparisons with the show seem ridiculous after Eric’s first barrage of violence, there are moments when the action drifts into an almost parody of clichÃ©, including Eric’s quick wit itself. But aside from these necessary distractions the core of the film takes place in a handful of rooms, each bringing a palpable escalating tension.
Starred Up does venture into psychological discussion at times, with looks at Eric’s upbringing and having his equally psychotic father in the same prison highlight why he may be the way he is. There’s also a brief mention of past abuse as the boundaries of the old nature verses nurture argument raise its head, but it isn’t too long before Eric is greasing himself up and battering some guards to remind the audience just how close to explosion most of the inmates are at all times.
It’s a shame that Mackenzie felt the need to draw on the standard prison clichÃ©s throughout, because they draw the film into territories where it doesn’t quite fit. What he does exceptionally well is to create and present the prison hierarchy succinctly, so that the audience knows when someone has overstepped the line and what repercussions may be on the way. The cinematography by Michael McDonough helps with this as everything is presented widescreen and in clear lines. These men are in a prison and as the viewer, we’re there too. There’s no escape for anyone until the story has been told.
What a shame then that the finale is simultaneously so overwrought and underwhelming. There a sense that following the building tension there might be a full-blown explosion of rage and violence, but when it happens Mackenzie disappointedly pulls his punches for the first time.