Movie Review - Starred Up

Jack O'Connell (left) and Ben Mendelsohn
play father-and-son in prison in "Starred Up
There are so many British films set in prison that it's practically its own genre. Recent and probably some of the best examples are Hunger (2008) starring Michael Fassbender and Bronson (2009) starring Tom Hardy.

This film, directed by David Mackenzie, is one that can be added to the list but just perhaps not as high on that list. Set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the movie centers on Eric Love, played by Jack O'Connell, a 19-year-old inmate who is transferred into the same prison as his father Neville Love, played by Ben Mendelsohn.

Clearly, Eric is an angry, bitter and violent child, most likely because he didn't have his parents growing up. It's not exactly made apparent if Eric purposefully got himself sent here, and if whatever crime he committed was done with the intent to be closer to his father. He says something to that effect, but his actions say otherwise.

His unruly aggression and utter petulance dominates his early behavior. What sinks his character and makes him unlikeable is how he threatens the life of a prison guard and bites the genitals of another. When he attacks the guards, the question is why, or what does he think he'll get out of it. Does he really think it will get him anywhere?

He obviously is smart enough to have a plan to combat the guards but so stupid that it wouldn't believe he'd suffer repercussions. It doesn't matter because the film capitulates by not giving him repercussions. Eric can bash a prisoner's head in, threaten to shiv the neck of a guard, bite the penis of another guard, and then he can just walk the halls freely.

Rupert Friend is introduced as Oliver, a counselor at the prison who is able to calm Eric down and get him put into a therapy group. Oliver leads the group and tries to get Eric talking, along with other prisoners, mainly black prisoners, to help rehabilitate them. Most scenes with the prisoners devolve into shouting matches where every other word is "cunt."

One of the prisoners in the group is Hassan, played by Anthony Walsh who had a small role in one of my favorite films from last year, My Brother the Devil. Walsh gets a lot more to do here and proves himself a capable actor. Yet, compared to so many films set in prison, it's not really anything outstanding. Most of the time, it's just uber-masculine aggression, angry eyes and chest-thumping, no real acting stretches.

Writer Jonathan Asser utilizes a lot of stereotypical characters here. One of which is the evil warden, or the evil Deputy Governor, played by Sam Spruell. Instead of being a smart or interesting villain, he's just your typical bad guy who only sees one solution to the problem. Asser doesn't give us a lot on Spruell's character to justify this. It's put all on Spruell's performance, which isn't enough.

What also isn't enough is Neville. His behavior seems odd. He encourages Eric to join Oliver's group. Then, inexplicably he has a problem with Oliver's group. He comes to Oliver's group and has a tantrum for no reason. Is he racist or what? It's never explained what his issue is with the group all of a sudden. It felt like manufactured drama, if only to prolong the movie. The ending has Neville sent away and it's not explained where he's going or why. Again, it felt like manufactured drama from Asser, a contrived heightened moment of Eric having to say goodbye to his dad.

Obviously, the movie is about this father-and-son relationship. Unfortunately, there isn't any substantial development. All their scenes are fighting or them not connecting, which again leads to an ending that is so contrived as Neville has to run to save Eric's life from the evil Deputy Governor. He does so, and that's supposed to be the resolution when it's not enough. A better father-and-son in prison dynamic was handled in the HBO series Oz. It's way more tragic but better handled.

I like the mother-and-daughter relationship portrayed in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. I liked the relationship because it was developed. It wasn't mired in violent mayhem, and typical prison, cliche conflicts. One example is at one point Eric calls Neville a homophobic slur because Neville has a boyfriend, played by David Avery. This gay slur is never reconciled, further distancing us from understanding who Neville is and what Eric thinks of him.

Mackenzie stages a murder attempt in the shower with a totally nude O'Connell fighting the attempted murderer. There is a comparable scene in Eastern Promises (2007) where a totally nude Viggo Mortensen fights his would-be assassins. Director David Cronenberg's film shot that scene with less shaky cam and freneticism. I'm not sure if it's just being in a hurry and not caring, or if it was an attempt at being edgy. It's probably a combination of both, which is my overall feeling about the movie.

Two Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but features nudity and intense violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 46 mins.


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