Off the top of my head, I’d say British cinema is defined by the following categories: period films, romantic, witty or absurdly bizarre comedies, Harry Potter and then a whole genre of films best described as “realistic” and “gritty,” often depicting lower-class youth involved in some type of criminal activity with spitting old gangsters. With its lack of wizards or Hugh Grant, David Mackenzie’s Starred Up definitely falls into the latter category.
Taking place entirely in an unspecified prison somewhere in a dark and dingy part of the U.K., Starred Up follows Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), an explosive 19-year old delinquent who enters adult prison and is described as being “high-risk.” His first activities in jail include melting a razor blade into his toothbrush and kicking the shit out of his cell neighbour for his refusal to lend him a lighter and seemingly enjoying this act of brutal violence. Lo and behold, Love’s daddy Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn) is being held in the same prison and is some kind of bigwig prison guy with connections. I believe it was Confucius who said: “prison + daddy issues = fun.”
While baby Love is encouraged to join a group organized by a therapist named Oliver (Rupert Friend) who wants to teach inmates to resolve their issues with words instead of violence, papa Love’s clumsy attempts at protecting his son just ruin any chance of him actually improving himself.
Fellow anglophiles and/or lovers of TV shows revolving around fornicating teens will recognize O’Connell from his role as the troublesome and perma-horny Cook in Skins and this performance comes across as a much darker, more perturbed version of that character, with all of his affable camaraderie stripped and replaced with seething inner turmoil. While his character appears to be all boiled-up rage and maniacal spouts of brutality, O’Connell succeeds in infusing him with just the right amount of child-like naivety to make you sympathize with him.
This isn’t a clichéd prison drama with any kind of social or political message — no one gets out, or finds God, or reunites with a long-lost loved one. Similarly to Jacques Audiard’s Un Prophète, it’s quite simply a raw and intelligent portrait of the power dynamics between men in a confined space, with the added bonus of a pretty screwed-up father-son relationship.
Starred Up is as perfectly gritty and realistic as can be mastered by someone born and bred in a country where the sky mostly varies in shades of grey and constantly pisses rain down on its inhabitants. ■
Starred Up screens at the Phi Centre (407 St-Pierre) today, Friday, Aug. 29 and Saturday, Aug. 30 at 7:30 p.m., $11.25