Dir: David Mackenzie. Starring: Jack O'Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend
How good is Jack O'Connell in Starred Up? Let's count the ways. The Jack-the-lad actor, increasingly favoured on tabloid party pages, does a barnstorming job as Eric Love, a violent criminal facing his latest stint in prison. "Jack the lad", funnily enough, is tattooed on his right shoulder, but it's appropriate enough for the character. The film, O'Connell's growing fanbase may wish to note, doesn't hide much of him from view.
In the opening scenes, Eric is admitted, stripped, and shown to his cell, which he proceeds to customise with lightning speed. He melts a toothbrush and sticks a razorblade on one end, fashioning a scary-looking shank, then uses the other to unscrew a strip-light – his hiding-place. This is excellent, wordless exposition – we see exactly how practiced and quick off the mark he is in jail. O'Connell gives him a dangerous swagger, too, a fearlessness in his new environment which can only bode trouble.
Recovering from a few ill-fated projects, such as the entirely dubious Spread (2009), Scottish director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe) lays all the groundwork here for a compellingly gritty penitential potboiler – a British A Prophet (2009). O'Connell fends off both peer aggression and a posh corrections officer (Rupert Friend, nailing his part) with a combination of insolent cheek and kicks to the head.
The movie whips up a robust choreography of attack and counter-attack – there's a gut-clenching dance of death every five minutes. Jack doesn't need weapons to fill a room with fear – he lunges crotchwards in one scene and proceeds to get the trousered privates of a middle-aged screw between his teeth. Ronnie Barker never had the agility or bite for that.The only man able to stop Eric in his tracks is Nev (Ben Mendelsohn), the closest thing to a boss on his wing, who has everyone at his beck and call, and a unique way of reducing this newcomer to a beseeching little boy. There's no special sorcery to this. Nev is his father.
Prison films have always had their share of surrogate father-son bonding, so there's something satisfying about making it biological – it's a shrewd twist in the formula. Mendelsohn is particularly good at etching his character's soul-smitten fatigue, but he's curiously not as scaldingly weird or terrifying here as we know he can be, from the likes of Animal Kingdom. This creates a problem: Eric's awe-inspiring confidence dwindles away almost too rapidly when they're face to face. The relationship's missing a vital component – anger, perhaps – that would make it wholly persuasive. It's set up too soon and obviously as a redemptive exercise, leaving Mackenzie to spin variations on the same tune – bludgeon, plead, repeat – for his whole film. It's halfway-strong, just under-dramatised; goodness, though, if it doesn't show what O'Connell is capable of.
(Originally reviewed as part of the Toronto Film Festival)
Fresh Movie Trailer