The latest offering from director David Mackenzie delivers to the screen a frank addition to the prison genre of film, following teenage offender Eric Love (Jack O’Connell). In young Eric, we find an individual consumed by rage and completely driven by violence. In terms of communication it is the only language he speaks as, having suffered tremendous physical abuse and emotional neglect growing up, it became instinct to adopt such behaviours as default. Watching him brought to mind the illegal practice of starving and abusing dogs until they become rabid beasts hell-bent on killing each other when put in close quarters together. Eric, being one of these hypothetical animals, is left so emotionally bankrupt by his past that he was purely running on automatic and frenzied fury. O’Connell has played his fair share of imbalanced and mercurial individuals – most notably Cook from Skins – but this might be his most mature depiction yet. He fully melts into Eric’s psyche and leaves before us the most convincing of flawed individuals.
The bleakness of the prison environment is reinforced from the outset, with opening scenes devoid of dialogue and heavy on actions shots depicting Eric’s introduction to the adult prison’s intrusive and demanding routine. Being stripped naked, cavity searches and the occasional bark of orders from an officer are all par for the course. None of this is entirely alien to Eric, however – having been ‘starred up’ i.e. transferred two years prematurely from the young offenders institution, it is more a graduation of sorts. In the big, bad adult world, Eric is forced to manoeuvre a new set of ropes and realise that in here, playing up too much can get you killed rather than gaining you respect. The situation is made all the more emotionally turbulent by the presence of his father Ned (Ben Mendelsohn) in the same prison, who has been serving his sentence since Eric was a child. Once reunited in this sorry circumstance, Ned is determined to watch over his son and ensure he is steered away from trouble and guided towards a path that will secure him release as soon as possible.
Eric’s relationship with his father is at best, and understandably, more than a little twisted. After years of separation, they make a bizarre and disjointed return to their respective father and son roles – this time in substance rather than just in name – and neither of them are quite sure how to navigate it. Ned is essentially playing catch up but this is slightly misplaced, being over a decade too late. Even when he makes the effort, he is not the most effective of parents – he doesn’t want Eric to ‘fraternise’, only to keep his head down and get out. But in discouraging his son from the former does not realise that having someone to watch his back could be beneficial in terms of actually maintaining decent friendships for the first time in who knows how long – something that had been sorely absent thus far in his life, and with dire consequences, and something every teenage boy, every human, should experience. Prison or no, it is so promising to eventually see Eric interact with people on a basis of having normal conversations rather than drawing blood. Still, at least Ned does try and we can recognise that he loves his son. Prison hierarchies and custom be damned if it means some kind of harm will come to his flesh and blood.
This volatile cocktail of temperaments exists in an environment where raw hostility is a constant presence, alternating between regularly rearing its head and lurking beneath the surface. Mackenzie does not always depend on use of instrumentals to amplify suspense as the frequent absence of sound is key to emphasising the chasm in which the prisoners have been abandoned and makes any tension all the more palpable. Extended pauses in conversation between the inmates are suspended in a false calm during which we have to live in the silence not knowing whether the result will be yet another flash-in-the-pan kick off, or a comment being laughed off. Instead of a build-up of tension we get explosions of them, maniacally sparked up at the slightest sideways look or throwaway word. It is in staring into the silence that the unrestrained savagery – the risk of it and the inevitability of it – is reflected back to us. The waiting and the uncertainty keeps us on our toes.Ultimately, the beauty of the film lies in its authenticity. Filmed in Crumlin Road prison in Belfast, the lighting is harsh and stark, and the conditions offer the bare minimum of human comfort. There is no warmth; it is an emotional ground zero – there is nothing, and within this nothingness, discord festers. Shooting the film in sequence and editing along the way captured, Mackenzie felt, the immediacy of the plot, and the script from first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser (himself a prison therapist) made the story entirely genuine. It is clear that he possesses a true understanding of the people he portrays and their life within the system which enables him to transcend any hackneyed stereotypes. The presence of Oliver Baumer (played by Rupert Friend, loosely based on Asser himself) as therapist to some of the most violent offenders, naturally including Eric, offers some hopeful moments of collaboration when the inmates can listen to each other and be listened to. By the end, nothing is certain and not much is given away, but within this short space of time, we really get to know Eric and, more than that, deeply care for him.
Starred Up was screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is on limited cinema release now