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Review: Starred Up, Cineworld, Ipswich, until April 3!

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Review: Starred Up, Cineworld, Ipswich, until April 3!

I was recently unfortunate enough to see 300: Rise of an Empire, the sequel to 300, Zack Snyder’s film version of Frank Miller’s graphic novel…

Needless to say, without Gerard Butler in the leading role and Snyder’s directing skills, the movie is terrible; bad, over-the-top acting and awful CGI-heavy fight scenes dominated the screen. Something that I found more disappointing than the film was the appearance of Jack O’Connell as another shouty, bare-chested greek.

Most people under the age of 23 will remember O’Connell as Cook from Skins, a character that managed to carry the third and fourth series with his “Jack the Lad” antics and intense screen presence. However, under the leadership of 300: Rise of an Empire director, Noam Murro (no notable other work), Jack’s performance, although not lacking effort, was laden with bad dialogue and cliches.

The antidote to this disappointment came only a week later in the form of Starred Up, a prison drama from the little-known British director, David Mackenzie, starring the aforementioned Jack O’Connell.

We see Jack O’Connell as Eric Love, a violent teenage convict who is sent from juvenile detention to an adult prison where his father resides. We quickly become aware that Eric is someone who is at home in prison, willing to fight to survive with a tortured past and troubled relationship with his father. Eric is “starred up”, which we come to learn means he was prematurely transferred to adult prison (likely due to violent behaviour). The phrase encompasses more than just this, however; another inmate tells us “Starred up means you’re a leader.”

Eric’s violence quickly grabs the attention of the prison’s governors who are quick to dismiss all chance of rehabilitation for Eric. However, Oliver, played by Rupert Friend, sees hope for the boy and fights for him to join his counselling group, which is designed to help inmates deal with their anger.

The film sees Eric being pulled in several different directions by his father, the Governor, Oliver and the prison kingpin, all with their own ideas as to the path that the boy should take on the inside.

Jack O’Connell’s performance is brilliant. He is able to portray the archetypal prison hardman much like Tom Hardy in Bronson but at the same time we can see a fragility to his character; in his private moments he is a scared young boy. He brings an intensity to the character that is most notable in the scenes involving the group counselling where the room is constantly just about to explode into violence.

The other members of the counselling group are also brilliant. Showing a camaraderie that is lacking throughout the rest of the prison, they do an excellent job of showing the pressure to always appear strong in the male-dominated environment.

Eric’s father, played by Ben Mendelsohn, is well executed – a downright wrong’un; sinister and intimidating in equal parts. The relationship between overbearing father and son plays out very well, equally relatable as it is hilarious.

The tone of the film is perfect. It brilliantly skirts the line between heavy, gritty drama and extremely dark humour with the tensions between characters so great that often the response from the audience is laughter at the sheer release of tension, as you are caught unaware by some genuinely funny dialogue.

The film is not, despite what you might expect, overly gory. The violence you do see definitely warrants the 18-rating, but we are not constantly bombarded with stabbings, beatings and prison shower scenes.

The film also manages to portray the claustrophobia and lack of privacy in the prison very well. Everyone is always being watched and there is barely room to breath for Eric as he traverses the monotonous grey prison hallways.

There’s a timelessness to the film as well. The lack of natural light means you are never sure what time of day it is or how much time has passed between scenes. The director is skilled enough to give us several pieces of symbolism that refer to this timelessness, too. Eric’s father sports cobweb tattoos; a common mark among prisoners to represent sitting doing nothing for so long that a spider is able to weave a cobweb onto one’s skin. There are lingering shots of the prison turnstiles turning, ticking like a clock that is slowly getting slower and slower. This realism and understanding of what prison life does to an inmate’s concept of time likely came from screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s time spent as a prison therapist.

This film is a must see for anyone interested in British cinema. Unfortunately it is not playing at the Ipswich Film Theatre. It is, however, playing at Ipswich Cineworld until April 3. See this instead of 300!

Words: Jacob Lees


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