Jack O’Connell first rose to fame as the outwardly volatile and womanising James Cook in E4’s acclaimed British drama Skins. Now starring in David Mackenzie’s Starred Up, O’Connell takes on the familiar role of an explosive young man who is far more vulnerable than he seems. Young offender Eric Love is “starred up” – a term that here refers to the rare occasion when teen prisoners are transferred to an adult facility due to their uncontrollable violence. The catch for Eric is that this new facility is the very same prison where his estranged father is serving his sentence.
Jonathan Asser’s script is based on his own time spent working in Wandsworth prison, and this reference point brings solid authenticity to the film. Even more impressively, this is Asser’s debut feature. Starred Up boasts all the staples of a classic “prison movie”: corrupt staff, criminals with hearts of gold, violent gangs and unlikely friendships. However, Asser’s cleverly layered characters bring a depth seen in films of The Shawshank Redemption’s calibre. This is not Shawshank, however. With its distinctly British voice and sharp humour, Starred Up stands in its own right.
Predictably, O’Connell is spectacular, aptly portraying a traumatised young man who shuns his own potential. Eric’s most interesting relationships are with his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn, Adore) and volunteer counsellor Oliver (Rupert Friend, The Young Victoria). Mendelsohn is tough and tender, true to the tone of the film. Friend is endearing, but plays with a quiet intensity that makes his character and his motives very intriguing.
Of course, the film is not without its shortcomings. Many of the inmates, including Eric, speak with thick, fast accents that are hard to decipher amid the loud bustle and violence of a prison setting. In a slight glitch in continuity, Governor Hayes (Sam Spruell, Snow White and the Huntsman) is seemingly the only intrinsically evil character in a cast of morally ambiguous others, and this makes his extreme actions rather incomprehensible. O’Connell is a terrific actor and for this reason one hopes his strong build and impish grin don’t see him forever slotted into the role of the misunderstood troublemaker.
Problems aside, Starred Up is gritty and grounded with a sharp wit and surprising tenderness. It is at base an immensely entertaining film with enviable talent and wide appeal.
Starred Up is released nationwide on 21st March 2014.
Watch the trailer for Starred Up here: