Starred Up (2013)   Leave a comment

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Brutal, violent, and relentless, Starred Up tells the story of Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a nineteen year old serving a lengthy sentence in an adult jail. Eric was starred up or moved out of juvenile detention to adult prison due to his penchant for extreme violence. After savagely attacking a fellow inmate and a handful of guards who try to subdue him, Eric meets Oliver (Rupert Friend) and gets a chance at therapy. Oliver moderates a group of inmates trying to talk about their problems instead of acting out violently. Resistant at first, Eric slowly begins to trust the men in his group. He learns to think before acting and to take things in stride. His progress toward non-violence nearly stops though when his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a powerful lifer in the same prison interferes and jeopardizes both their lives and any hope Eric has for rehabilitation.

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Director, David Mackenzie uses a spare, no-frills approach which shows the brutal day to day existence of men who have been cast out of society and have formed a rudimentary one of their own. They live from moment to moment and even the most sophisticated of them reacts viciously when a new man or idea threatens his place in that society. The film moves fast. Conflicts begin and end in minutes or even seconds, but their consequences often last a lifetime. The inmates’ hair trigger tempers blast away any semblance of civilization leaving these men in a hellish existence of their own making.

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Oliver represents another aspect of the story as a man volunteering his time to help the inmates and battling the prison establishment and the inmate hierarchy at every turn. He has a way with even the most violent offenders and his no nonsense methods and calm, honest manner allows them to trust and confide in him. This angers the prison governor, (Sam Spruell) who takes Oliver’s rapport with the prisoners as a threat to his power. All these forces come to a head when Eric enters the picture and his presence incites all sides to make rash decisions.

The swift pacing and powerful performances had me on the edge of my seat. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen for a moment and I had no idea what would happen next. Jack O’Connell gave a jarring, physical performance. He’s in every scene and your eye naturally follows him. The entire cast had me believing their every word and the setting, Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast and Maze Long Kesh, Lisburn lent the proper atmosphere to this harrowing tale of life behind bars and one boy’s attempt to become human.

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