Brit prison drama Starred Up has had some very good reviews, but I must confess to being largely unmoved. It works reasonably well, but it doesn’t offer anything particularly new to a genre that struggles to avoid cliché.
The plot concerns nineteen year old juvenile offender Eric (Jack O’Connell) who is transferred to the adult prison where his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is serving a lengthy sentence. The crimes of father and son are not specified, though clearly they are serious enough to warrant being locked up for a long time. A series of brutal incidents immediately make clear that Eric can take care of himself on the inside, but his actions rile those at the top of the prison pecking order, who see him as a threat. Consequently, Neville is instructed to keep his son in line, but because of their estranged relationship, Eric is reluctant to heed his father’s advice.
Director David MacKenzie makes an admirable fist of conveying the harsh, gritty claustrophobia of prison life, and the cast are all very good, but outside of the mildly interesting father/son dynamic I found very little about the film that truly grabbed me, simply because I’ve seen it all before in superior films. A couple of potentially interesting subplots develop – including one about an unpaid prison worker from a privileged background (played by Rupert Friend) who feels compelled to engage with the prisoners in group therapy, and another about corrupt prison guards who arrange “suicides” whenever a kingpin prisoner requests them to. But the former ends in a whimper rather than a bang, whilst the latter ends up playing out very predictably.
Some have compared this with The Shawshank Redemption, which I find baffling. The film it most reminded me of was Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, but again that was a much, much better film. In the end, Starred Up deserves some credit purely as a tough, gutsy, gruelling drama of life inside (with all due warnings about extreme bad language throughout, violence and so on). But ultimately I found it much ado about nothing.