Film of the Week: Starred Up
Alan Clarke’s 1979 drama Scum, probably the best-known British film about life behind bars, features a scene in which Ray Winstone’s young offender thrashes the opposition among his fellow inmates, famously concluding with the words, “I’m the daddy now.” David Mackenzie’s Starred Up similarly charts the jail progress of a young man who’s clearly, precociously destined to be the “daddy,” the alpha male, on his wing. But there’s an obstacle, or possibly an advantage, waiting for him in the prison where he’s just arrived: there’s already a daddy there waiting for him. Literally his daddy.
The term “starred up” refers to a procedure by which a young offender is moved up into an adult prison—apparently because the prisoner in question is considered high risk, and ripe for tougher conditions. Exactly what’s at issue in the case of Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) isn’t spelled out in Starred Up, a film that makes a virtue of its parsimony with backstory. In any case, the film doesn’t waste time or words at the start, hurling us as if bodily into its world. It begins with 19-year-old Eric arriving in prison. We first see him in close-up, head down, eyes sunken, and thereafter his face retains that guarded look, even when he’s grinning jubilantly at some triumph—he’s always holding back, and judging by the few details we learn about his life, he has good reason to.
We follow Eric’s entry into his new world, one that we can guess is immeasurably bigger and colder than the institutions he’s known till now. Ronan Hill’s sound mix offers an instantly alienating and engulfing symphony of buzzers, alarm bells, slamming doors, the accompaniment to the acrid yellow lighting behind those doors. A steadicam follows Eric through corridors and up staircases—echoing the tracking shots of Scum, in fact. Starred Up may be a prison movie, but it feels more as if it’s set in a submarine. Throughout, we see nothing of the outside world, and barely—until the end at least, when the film momentarily “surfaces”—any significant glimmer of daylight. It’s a remarkably claustrophobic film—as a prison drama ought to be.
Having very effectively sketched out his milieu with a minimum of spoken words, Mackenzie applies the same economy to telling us what kind of anti-hero we’re dealing with (I’ve slightly lost track of this director’s output, but I’d hazard a guess that this is his most controlled film since Young Adam, as well as his punchiest). No sooner is Eric shown into his cell than he’s using a melted toothbrush to fashion a rudimentary weapon of a razor; we instantly realize that, young as he is, he has an old lag’s knowledge of the tricks for surviving the harshest conditions. A further brushstroke in this character sketch is a series of shots in which he peers cautiously through the crack of his barely open door: a close-up of his eye, a blurry shot of what he sees, a very concise evocation of his alert, suspicious mind.
These first 15 or so minutes are so tautly executed that some of that tension drains out once the drama proper kicks in. In that opening, we appear to be getting a raw glimpse of an inconceivably grim way of life that most of us will never have to face; then the film puts its cards on the table and declares itself a melodrama. Enter a prisoner with a sour, contemptuous face, who approaches Eric with the businesslike walk of someone who has a lot of visits to make—he’s the boy’s father, Neville, already a long-serving prisoner within these walls. The actor is Ben Mendelsohn, who’s recently become the international screen specialist in variously feral, scarred, abject characters that you wouldn’t want to meet, partly because they probably smell acrid (Killing Them Softly, The Place Beyond the Pines, and most memorably, Animal Kingdom). Neville sidles up to greet the son that he clearly hasn’t seen for years, and essentially gives us the boy’s life story in a couple of muttered sentences: “Stupid fuckin’ junkie slut she was… Fair play offing that geezer…” (we later learn that Eric has brutally killed a pedophile, probably only part of a nightmarish backstory). Unsettling a presence as Mendelsohn’s Neville is throughout, the effect is almost scuppered in this first utterance, which uncomfortably makes you aware you’re watching an Australian actor struggling to sound Cockney and coming out a bit Dick Van Dyke at the first hurdle.
Still, things quickly hot up again. Pathologically volatile, Eric has hardly settled in before he’s made a dangerous enemy, brutalized a well-meaning fellow con, and found himself savagely holding his own against a phalanx of armored guards, eventually making the unanswerable move of sinking his teeth into one officer’s crotch. On the plus side, it proves that he qualifies for the prison’s anger management therapy sessions. They are led by a volunteer worker named Oliver (Rupert Friend), and these sessions look as if they’re going to provide the dramatic core of the film.
The film quickly sells us on the idea that Oliver’s group is the best thing that could happen to Eric—and that it would be pretty beneficial for similarly irascible Neville, if only he could manage to do more than storm in, hover tetchily for a moment, then furiously storm out again. But once the sessions get under way, they don’t quite deliver the emotional grit we hope for. Prickly badinage and challenging stares are exchanged between the men, who occasionally stand up and face off—violence being averted by Oliver’s technique of standing between the opponents and gazing balefully at the floor. At one point, he gets confrontational; “You’re a black cunt,” he tells one of the attendees (all black except Eric), yet no one really takes the bait, and the conversation drifts to a debate on the pros and cons of cunnilingus. Somehow these scenes, which feel as if they’re partly improvised, never quite find their dramatic rhythm. That’s partly because they’re so often interrupted by some sudden explosion or other, and even if male rage is its dominant theme, the film does seem a little generous with such explosions, which play havoc with its rhythm.
I wish that Mackenzie had given us more of these group sessions, let us get to know the men and their interrelationships—ideally in long takes, if not quite at Frederick Wiseman length. But the hurried rhythm of these scenes isn’t the whole problem; there’s also the sheer oddness of Oliver. As played by Friend, he seems at some moments self-effacing to the point of being downright wet, yet at others seems to exert a barely believable authority over cons and prison staff alike. Defiantly facing off against Sam Spruell’s imposingly malign deputy governor, Oliver comes across like the charismatic leader of an experimental theater workshop who’s been posted in a tough high school. It’s such an odd performance by Friend—his feminine thoughtfulness accentuated for maximum contrast with O’Connell’s macho ferocity—that you can’t really believe in Oliver, and that means you can’t quite buy in his methods either. That’s all the more odd since screenwriter Jonathan Asser himself ran a similar group in London’s Wandsworth Prison, so Oliver appears to all intents and purposes to be a version of Asser, with the therapy material presumably drawn from his own career.
By and large, the film feels on surer ground dealing with Eric outside the group—although there it comes much closer to the routine tropes of the prison movie, especially to such apprenticeship dramas as Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (its rise-to-power themes echoed in one character’s observation, “'Starred up' means you’re a leader. And without leaders, where would we be?”). Some of the broader elements do make this feel more like a generic slammer movie than the exercise in hard realism promised by the opening: the corrupt authorities conspiring against vulnerable prisoner and would-be redemptive outsider alike; the establishment that’s really run by the inmates; the soft-spoken guru-like prisoner kingpin (Peter Ferdinando).
But there’s a lot of emotional heft to the gradual rapprochement between Neville and son. The rivalrous stare-downs between them are effective enough, but the gulf between their characters and their experiences of the world emerge most eloquently when Eric sees his dad’s cellmate put a tender hand on Neville’s knee, and the boy suddenly learns something he never suspected about the parameters of masculinity: “It’s fuckin’ prison, innit?” says Neville (after which Eric returns to his cell and shudders in horror).
You can’t imagine anyone getting close enough to put a hand on Eric’s knee, but who knows—by the end of the film, he may have learned to loosen up a little. And by the end, you really do care to know where Eric is headed. That’s partly because of the mesmerizing and often downright frightening intensity of Jack O’Connell, whose muscular, fearless performance is utterly compelling (and I partly mean fearless in that he’s not afraid to thrash around naked in a tiled shower room while his character is being garroted). While some of the actors here project hardness a little deliberately, O’Connell seems to take Eric’s constant fury in his stride. There’s something at once elastic, hyper-volatile, and yet extremely casual about his performance; his Eric has the manner of an athlete wanting to get through the day and do his moves, and contemptuously brushing off anything that’s going to stop him. O’Connell—also impressive as a stranded soldier in the forthcoming ’71—gives Starred Up the muscle and above all the emotional continuity that holds it together. Playing the star prediction game is usually a futile business, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who identified O’Connell as a screen daddy in the making.