Jack O’Connell savours his lead role as Eric Love, the 19 year old livewire who finds himself transferred from a young offender’s unit to an adult prison. As a showcase for the young Skins alumni’s talents, Starred Up is a marvellous exercise. But the plot’s lack of focus and reliance on seen-it-all-before cliché really lets down this British drama.
Directing duties are adeptly handled by David MacKenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe), with an unrelenting and unwavering commitment to demonstrating the grimness of Eric’s reality. In an almost wordless opening, Eric is stripped, inspected, transported and locked away, leaving him alone to quickly fashion an improvised weapon with just a toothbrush and a razor blade. With so little we are informed of so much about Eric’s character.
Unfortunately this restraint is not present elsewhere. Eric’s tumultuous relationship with his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who happens to be in the same pen, is not only clichéd, but presented through ham-fisted dialogue that tarnishes the stellar work done by both O’Connell and Mendelsohn. Then there’s Rupert Friend’s well-bred volunteer Oliver who leads group therapy sessions with the most aggressive of the inmates, to which Eric gets swiftly initiated. Friend admirably fleshes Oliver’s passion and optimism into a nuanced performance, but the therapy sessions themselves descend into outburst so rapidly as to be laughable and the whole subplot is constructed of every middle-class-teacher-working-in-adversity movie trope.
Ultimately, Starred Up never really decides what it wants to be. In trying to tackle so many issues, (father/son relationships, rehabilitation vs punishment, institutional bureaucracy, prisoner cliques) the film simply stretches itself too thin. That said, O’Connell gives a powerhouse performance, worthy of a ticket price alone, and the film should be congratulated for ensuring him with an intriguing career path.