"“A gripping watch, as you remain completely engrossed as you build towards a dramatic finale...”"
As David Mackenzie's Starred Up begins, we see our protagonist signing in to prison, where he is stripped search, and told to crouch down for the officer to take out his routine check. Instantly, right off the bat – we see the lead character completely naked, in a vulnerable position, stripped of his clothes, and dignity. As an audience member you feel intimately entwined with the role, and see him for the human being he is – though it's safe to say we're being lulled into a false sense of security, because what transpires, is a harrowing tale of this savage, and sadistic young man.
The troubled, violent teenager in question, is that of Eric, played with a vicious conviction by Jack O'Connell. His original crime may be ambiguous, yet we know he's been transferred to an adult prison following his barbaric behaviour. Seemingly intent on making as many enemies as he can – almost killing a fellow inmate only moments after arriving – he soon meets his match, squaring up to Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) – who just so happens to be his father. While Eric's behaviour continues to cause problems, he joins an anger management group run by volunteer Oliver (Rupert Friend) – who desperately attempts to calm down this hot-heated youth, before he lands himself in even deeper danger.
By not discovering what Eric did to land him in prison – nor what provoked a venue transfer – it puts us in this particular time and and place, almost making his past somewhat irrelevant, and this is an effective technique – because as far as we're concerned, all that matters is what happens in this confinement. Eric seems like he's at the point of no return, so it's a real credit to both O'Connell and Mackenzie (as well as writer Jonathan Asser) that we believe in his development, and his character arc doesn't feel at all contrived, as we never once question the route he goes down. As our entry point into this tale, O'Connell ensures we remain on the edge of our seat throughout, as Eric is such a live-wire and so unpredictable. He has this swagger about him too, and when you see him walking around the prison grounds, you always fear he's going to do something really bloody dangerous.
O'Connell is perfect for the role, as he has this nasty, erratic and unstable streak about him, and you completely believe that he's capable of whatever inhumane acts he commits. Yet somehow you can find it within yourself to pity him on occasion, as the actor has an endearing quality and so much charisma that you put your faith in him, and you desperately want him to turn his life around. Meanwhile, Mendelsohn also turns in a terrific performance, once more proving himself to be one of the finest actors out there at present. However, even the best have their faults – and the Australian actor has certainly found his, in the form of a cockney accent. Oh dear.
That aside, Starred Up is a compelling and captivating drama, complete with a well-crafted father-son dynamic that is multilayered and poignantly presented. It makes for a gripping watch, as you remain completely engrossed as you build towards a dramatic finale. There is no linearity to the narrative however, as a film that deviates away from formula. Eric's distinctive unpredictability ensures that we are taken places we don't expect to go – making for a striking and memorable feature film.