Jack O’Connell can do no wrong right now, it seems. Except maybe taking a supporting role in a 300 prequel. In the space of a couple of years he’s earned his place as the next big British star. The trio of Starred Up, ’71 and Unbroken (Angelina came-a-calling) have cemented a rightfully acclaimed reputation as an immediate and visceral performer. He’s got gigs with Jodie Foster and (maybe, touch wood) Terry Gilliam coming up; it’s probably just as well he didn’t land Reed Richards. Which is a roundabout way of getting to his performance in Starred Up. It’s a powerhouse turn, one that almost, but ultimately can’t, make up for a movie unable to decide if it’s a serious picture about rehabilitation or your shiv-wielding genre staple replete with vicious guards, duplicitous prison overlords (not Noel Coward), and psycho wardens.
What’s surprising about this, perhaps, is that screenwriter Jonathan Asser has based the picture on his own experiences working with offenders. There’s definitely a sense of a more engaged picture emerging from the folds of a standard nick thriller every time we enter the session groups. Oliver (Rupert Friend) comes into the incarceration situation almost unbelievably ill equipped; he’s well-educated and intimidated. The sort of guy who wouldn’t last five minutes in stir. So we’re as curious as Eddie (O’Connell) about why his group seem so devoted to his methods. And why he is seized to help Eddie in particular.
In tandem with this is the set-up of Eddie being incarcerated with his lifer dad Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a man disinclined to give the son he’s hardly seen any special treatment, but who nevertheless feels the paternal bond. Neville’s inability to express himself (his one attendance at the group leads to its dissolution) is effective, but there’s a strong sense of great performances overcoming the artifice of the set up here. Eddie has come up from young offenders’ prison for being too much of a handful (“starred up”) and seems set to cause similar disruption. Prison Mr Big Dennis (Peter Ferdinando, memorable as the Black Knight in the none-too memorable Snow White and the Huntsman) instructs Neville to mentor Eddie, so his son’s behaviour doesn’t disrupt the dirty business line Dennis has going with the crook deputy governor Haynes (Sam Spruell).
From that, it may seem as if there’s a lot going on. And there is, too much really. Just a film about Oliver’s anger-management classes could have been fascinating; even a film where the focus is as much on the malign bureaucracy of those who don’t want to help offenders as on the offender (Eddie) himself. I don’t think Neville’s presence, as good as Mendelsohn is, is strictly necessary. It brings additional elements of melodrama that undercut the more serious themes. Along with the standard prison tropes, this helps turn Starred Up into another exploitation picture.
The final scenes between father and son are touching, but Asser and director David Mackenzie (whose career has been on the unfocussed side, material-wise) precede this an action-packed, adrenalised finale that speaks the message “there’s nothing quite so effective for bringing a dad and his boy together as beating 7 shades of shit out of some screws”. Mackenzie even douses the attempted hanging of Eddie in a red filter and adds an eerie, horror-movie soundtrack. Spruell’s Deputy Governor may as well be Donald Sutherland in Lock Up, so unspeakably motiveless Machiavellian is he.
And there are the signs of a screenplay that bends itself every which way in order to meet the demands of the moment. Eric’s eloquent insights into his situation and those around him show an empathy beyond his boundless rage, and suggest he’s in touch with his inner self before he starts attending Oliver’s groups. Indeed, when he enrages Oliver, who admits he wants to hurt him, Eric agrees to come to the meeting following the tritest of exchanges (“Good, now we’re getting somewhere”). Stallone could have been so subtle.
On the other hand, the therapy sessions are engrossing, and extremely well performed (one thing I can’t fault here are the performances). Anthony Welsh, David Ajala, Ashley Chin and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr are there for the necessary induction (“It can take a session or two to get used to it”), so it’s a shame that, just as we are gaining an insight into Asser’s method, he decides to move onto matters more lugubrious.
Unfortunately, Starred Up allows the clichés to win out. If it were that kind of film through-and-through, this wouldn’t matter. But Asser really appeared to have his mind on higher things (I’m less sure of Mackenzie’s motives). What are we to take away when Oliver loses his temper with the warden and so kills his programme? It makes for a dramatic scene, but it serves to undermine his process. Maybe Eric and his fellow groupies will make better situations for themselves due to Oliver’s influence, but in the end the focus is more on father-son reconciliation. The authenticity of filming in an actual prison is resounding in terms of the overall mood and atmosphere, but it isn’t as if that’s a rarity for banged-up cinema. If Asser had the courage of his characters’ convictions, Starred Up might have really got its teeth into something. Instead, it gets down tearing new holes.