‘Starred Up’: Riveting prison drama

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While the British prison drama, “Starred Up” is undeniably hyperviolent, it is also a carefully considered and dramatically powerful film. The title refers to the practice of transferring under-aged criminals from a Young Offender Institution to a full-fledged adult prison because they are deemed a threat.

The film’s protagonist, Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is only 19-years old. However, due to his pattern of violent behavior, he has been starred up and transferred to an adult facility. On his first day at his new home, Eric demonstrates just how dangerous he is. He immediately fashions a weapon out of a prison-issued composite disposable razor/toothbrush and hides it for future use. Then, Eric attacks a fellow prisoner, which prompts a lockdown. He breaks a table in his prison cell and converts its legs into makeshift clubs. When a cadre of prison guards storm into his cell, Eric disables several of them before they can subdue him.

Although Eric is not particularly big, throughout the film, he displays a primordial instinct for fighting. In one memorable vignette, while handcuffed, Eric drops to his knees and bites through the pants of a prison guard and grips his genitals through tightly-clenched teeth. Ouch! In another scene, Eric is attacked while showering. It recalls a naked Viggo Mortenson fighting off a pair of knife-wielding assailants in “Eastern Promises.”

While young, Eric was abandoned by his father. He was subsequently taken from his mother by social services and placed in various institutions. Eric is consumed with residual feelings of anger and abandonment. As it turns out, his long-estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), is a prisoner in the same facility. He exerts a lot of influence over the incarcerated population.

Their father-son relationship is fraught with mutual ambivalence. Eric remains traumatized from growing up in a parentless environment. He is hesitant to accept expressions of paternal concern from someone, who is a virtual stranger.  Meanwhile, Neville feels protective towards his son, but resents the fact that Eric is threatening the prisoners’ carefully constructed hierarchy. The lockdowns compromise the business operations run by the crafty head prisoner, Spencer (Peter Ferdinando). Neville fears that Spencer will issue an order to have Eric killed.

The storyline takes a different trajectory, when it introduces Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend). He is a preternaturally calm and empathetic volunteer, who has started an anger management program for prisoners. Oliver eventually convinces a reluctant Eric to join his group. Although Neville has long eschewed his paternal duty to Eric, he resents that another man has shown an interest in helping his son.

In the lead role, Jack O’Connell is simply phenomenal. He displays a tightly-coiled, physical formidability. His performance crackles with a quiet intensity. As the film unfolds, he begins to reveal a carefully-concealed emotional vulnerability. I eagerly await O’Connell’s lead role in the upcoming Angelina Jolie-directed film, “Unbroken.” In it, he will portray Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner, who was taken prisoner by the imperial Japanese army during World War II.

Americans audiences will struggle with the thick, impenetrable accents of the prisoners. It is unlikely that they will be able to decipher the jailhouse argot. The heated dialogue of the prisoners in one of Oliver’s volatile group sessions was particularly difficult to comprehend. I could not understand what the prisoners were saying in this highly-charged scene. Nevertheless, I was totally captivated by the depiction of their dynamics.

“Starred Up” is the first screenplay by Jonathan Asser. The 50-year old writer had the benefit of a boarding school education and graduated from Exeter University. However, Asser has disclosed that he felt traumatized by being subjected to persistent bullying and the schools’ oppressive regulations. After graduating, Asser was plagued with mental health issues and struggled to fit unto society. For catharsis, Asser began doing public poetry recitations, including one at the Feltham Young Offenders’ Institute. He then became a volunteer there, teaching a poetry workshop. Eventually, he started an anger management program for youth offenders. Then, Asser was hired to work as an employee at the HM Prison Wandsworth. After taking some formal training, Asser organized the SVI (Shame/Violence: Intervention) program. It was designed to rehabilitate prisoners with extremely violent proclivities.

Although widely hailed for its efficacy, the SVI program was abruptly shut down. According to Asser, he had met with counterterrorism officials about the use of therapy to prevent the radicalization of prisoners. The following day, without any notice, Asser’s security pass was revoked and his program was decommissioned. Asser appealed the shutdown to the National Offender Management Service, albeit without success. Asser’s residual resentment is reflected in his unflattering portrayal of the prison officials as venal and corrupt.

Last year, “Starred Up” was nominated for eight British Independent Film awards. Ben Mendelsohn won for Best Supporting Actor. At the Dublin International Film Festival, Jack O’Connell won the Best Actor Award. At the London Film Festival. Jonathan Asser was cited as the Best British Newcomer. All of these accolades were richly deserved.

With a fascinating premise, well-crafted screenplay, taut direction, exceptional lead performance, interesting supporting characters, and a gritty sense of reality, “Starred Up” is a riveting prison drama.

***½  No MPAA rating 106 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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