Starred Up

Starred Up
  • Country of production: UK
  • Year: 2013
  • Certificate: 18
  • Director: David Mackenzie
  • Running time: 105 minutes

Starred Up is an extraordinary prison drama. JACK O'CONNELL plays Eric Love, a young offender moved prematurely to an adult jail ("starred up"), where his violent behaviour disrupts the running of the prison. His father Neville (BEN MENDELSOHN), who is a hardman lifer in the same prison, is charged with keeping him in order. The trouble is, Eric hasn't seen his dad since he was five. This ‘brilliant portrayal of prison life’ (Henry Barnes, The Guardian) is 'furiously compelling stuff, convincingly mounted and superbly acted’ (Tom Huddleston, Time Out). It was nominated for eight British Independent Film Awards last year – more than any other film.

Drawn into an unconventional anger-management group run by volunteer Oliver Baumer (RUPERT FRIEND, recently seen in Homeland), Eric starts to develop the sense of belonging that has been missing from his life and learns to count to 10 before striking out. But the corrupt prison system is less concerned with rehabilitation than with control and subjugation. The only things keeping Eric from being destroyed by the powers-that-be are his new-found camaraderie within the group and his father's influence.

'Some years from now', Starred Up 'will be remembered as the film that announced a new star', wrote Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter. Twenty-three-year-old Jack O’Connell's 'explosive performance' here 'justifies every last word of breathless hype' (Wendy Ide, The Times), following his earlier roles in This Is England (2006) and teen TV series Skins (2009-13). Angelina Jolie has since cast him to play the lead in Unbroken, scripted by the Coen Brothers, about the life of Olympic runner and US second-world-war hero Louis Zamperini.

Director DAVID MACKENZIE (Hallam Foe, Young Adam) draws an equally charged display from Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom, Killing Them Softly, The Place Beyond The Pines).

Starred Up was nominated for the Best Film award at the London Film Festival and won screenwriter JONATHAN ASSER the award for Best British Newcomer. Previously a prison therapist, Asser ran a similar group to Oliver's and wrote his first ever script when his placement was controversially stopped. He plays one of the prison officers and two former members of his prison programme also appear in the film.


Starred Up


'As prison films go, Starred Up hits all the usual bases with blistering naturalism. There's brawling in the corridors, sexual tension in the showers and corruption among the guards. But the plot defies the genre, and its two central performances rank on a par with those in 2009's A Prophet. Instead of wanting to get out, 19-year-old Eric desperately wants to stay behind bars, where he can be with his dad.'


The opening scenes mark Eric's arrival in prison with a statement of intent. He is admitted, stripped and shown to his cell, which he immediately sets about customising. Melting a toothbrush, he sticks a razorblade on one end to make a weapon, then uses the other end to unscrew a strip-light where he hides it. This 'is excellent, wordless exposition - we see exactly how practiced and quick off the mark he is in jail’ (Tim Robey, The Daily Telegraph).

This latest entry to the prison genre has been compared with Jacques Audiard's Oscar-nominated A Prophet (2009), which also featured a 19-year-old's struggle to survive harsh jail conditions, and Alan Clarke's Scum (1979), about the power struggle between a tough new inmate and the old hands in a brutal borstal regime.

The ‘behaviour on-screen feels too raw and immediate to register as "acting",’ said Peter Debruge in Variety. Director David Mackenzie filmed it in the order in which it happens on screen, which helped the actors capture the tension in the story.

Up and coming star

Jack O'Connell's performance as Eric drew comparisons with James Cagney, for his 'arrogant swagger and tightly coiled menace' (Allan Hunter, Screen International) and his 'bantam cock vitality and quicksilver mood changes' (Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter). Peter Debruge in Variety said O'Connell called to mind Tom Hardy's turn in Bronson (2008), especially the scene where he strips down and greases up to take on the prison guards.

Chip off the old block

Neville's first reaction is to "come down on" his son and Ben Mendelsohn is 'convincingly battered and grizzled as a veteran so acclimatised to the system that he has lost sight of any other possibilities or responsibilities,' wrote Allan Hunter in Screen International. His 'shambling gait and hangdog head somehow only exacerbate the threat he too conveys, even when doing almost nothing' (David Sexton, The London Evening Standard).

Father and son Love

Even in this dehumanising situation, one can discern more fragile sensitivities under the characters' abrasive surfaces, in particular Eric’s ambivalent feelings toward Nev. The audience ‘can never be certain whether he loves his father or wants to see him dead’ (Peter Debruge, Variety). Both characters are ultimately forced to come to terms with their suppressed emotions and confront the legacy of abandonment, and this yields unexpected warmth. ‘Prison films have always had their share of surrogate father-son bonding, so there's something satisfying about making it biological – it's a shrewd twist in the formula’ (Tim Robey, The Daily Telegraph).

Rupert Friend’s edgy therapist Oliver is an intriguing character. There are hints that he too, like Eric, has been badly affected by not having had a father present.

Starred Up has been highly praised for its authenticity and attention to detail, which is attributed not only to filming in Belfast's Crumlin Road jail but also to its screenwriter, former prison therapist Jonathan Asser, who was on set to advise throughout filming. 'The walls seem steeped in the claustrophobia of prison life' and the familiar ingredients of a prison drama 'feel fresh thanks to Asser’s unique perspective’ (Allan Hunter, Screen International).

The film 'will only get better upon closer inspection, as even the sharpest viewers are sure to miss a great deal the first time around' (Peter Debruge, Variety). Look out for the brief glimpse through a jagged gap in a prison window of the figure of Justice on a distant building, skewed and without her scales.



Starred Up


Starred Up

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