REVIEW: Starred Up

21 09 2014

Starred UpStarred Up,” not unlike its apparent next-of-kin “Bronson,” falls firmly into the category of great but not sensational British prison movies.  It’s entirely engaging and entertaining, even though it does not look beyond its confined setting.  And I’m totally fine with it.

The film begins with a silent bang as its protagonist, Eric Love, arrives to be locked away.  He’s the spiritual progeny of anarchic Randall P. McMurphy from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and James Dean’s renegade Jim Stark from “Rebel Without a Cause.  Already hardened by years in a juvenile facility, Eric arrives to play with the big boys and establish his position at the top of the pre-ordained social structure.

Rising star Jack O’Connell brings writer Jonathan Asser’s creation to vivid life with a viciously physical performance.  O’Connell neither entirely humanizes nor animalizes Eric, yet he’s still a staggering force.  Even as he erects barriers preventing us from really sympathizing with Eric, he becomes all the more enticing of a character.

His insurgency, of course, causes conflicts with other hardened criminals in the pen.  But it also draws the interest of two figures who feel compelled to save Eric from his foolish youthful mistakes.  One is, somewhat predictably, prison counselor Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend) who takes more interest than usually in psychologically stabilizing a potentially dangerous inmate.  More surprisingly, the other is Eric’s estranged father Neville (the highly underappreciated Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to make sure his son finds his place in the pecking order.

There’s no conventional battle for Eric’s soul.  There’s no giant climax the film towards which the film heads.  And, yes, there’s also nothing of particularly extraordinary merit in “Starred Up.”  But it has great storytelling and great acting that is wholeheartedly effective for the film’s entire duration.  Sometimes that in itself is sufficient.  B+ / 3stars

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