Friday 16 May 2014, by
David Mackenzie’s new film is a much-welcome addition to the British prison drama genre, that weaves sophisticated narrative into a bold critique of the penal system and a mockery of rehabilitation inside.
Set in the microcosm of an English prison, Starred Up is the story of serial offender, 19-year-old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), who has left the relative comfort of foster homes and juvie, to join inmates, including his estranged father Neville, (Ben Mendelson), in an adult prison. The film opens with prison staff processing and strip-searching an unwavering (even bordering on indifferent) Eric, who is escorted to his new cell in a maximum-security unit. When the cell doors first slam behind him, Eric proceeds to settle in, fashioning a weapon by welding a razor blade into a toothbrush and neatly placing bottles of baby oil on his cell shelves, which he will later douse himself in for protection against riot police. Within the first 24 hours, he will have beaten up another inmate over a lighter, fought with prison guards and had his cell blitzed by riot police who struggle to restrain him. As the prison governor, Hayes (Sam Spruell), prepares to send him into solitary confinement or do much worse, the prison psychotherapist, Oliver, (Rupert Friend) convinces him to let Eric join his anger management group therapy, held with 3 other inmates.
Whilst O’Connell’s character certainly knows how to assert himself with inmates and prison guards, the meeting with his estranged father, placed in his same wing, constitutes lesser known territory. It is here that we must thank MacKenzie for refusing to give us a drama about a young man with ’daddy issues’. Steering well clear of sappy romanticism, Starred Up presents a skillfully constructed relationship between an absent father and desperate son who, ironically, are locked up in the same place. For Eric, interactions with his father bring out a vulnerability that quietly compliments his deep-seated anger. Early on, it is clear that both sentiments stem from his profound insights into life’s shortcomings. Eric’s attempts at communication are met by a desperate Neville, who uses his clout in the prison pecking order to express an uncomfortable paternal instinct. More often than not, their relationship spirals into jealousy, anger and embarrassment, all of which are dramatically interrupted when Neville physically rescues Eric from a murder attempt planned by the prison’s administrators in the film’s final moments. As Neville is finally transferred to another prison, his very last words to his son are a darkly humorous ’I’m proud of you’.
MacKenzie’s achievements, however, go far beyond his remarkable portrayal of this dramatic relationship. Although some may be left feeling - in the words of a Daily Mail reviewer - ’thankful that people like Eric are inside’, others will be forced to question what the hell prison is for, or rather, what on earth prison is. But Starred Up does not invite viewers to embark on a formulaic search for answers. Corruption is far too endemic in this nick and rehabilitation a little too farcical. Individual actions emerge as mundane reproductions of a system that can survive, although not always thrive, regardless of the agents who exercise power within it. The treatment received by Eric and other inmates is not down to the moral defects of individual police officers. Punishment is not merely directed by the prison governor in power, nor is it simply administered by certain inmates to whom prison authorities have devolved a degree of control. In this context, the narrative of prison ’as progress’ towards anything at all becomes too surreal for viewers to pursue. We soon have little choice but to assume that prison’s greatest power emanates from the threat of incarceration it produces.
Starred Up’s powerful reflections are only marginally disturbed by certain fractures that appear within the film’s narrative and character development. Alongside the lack of sophistication with which less dominant themes are presented, such as inmate homosexuality and the pushing of contraband inside, Mackenzie’s development of the role of Eric’s therapist falls short of brilliance. Oliver’s personal ambitions, abandonment issues and his feelings towards the prison establishment are clumsily elaborated. Although his ultimately ineffectual work as a rehabilitator is key to the film’s central premise, the parallels we are encouraged to draw between him and Eric and his violent resignation in the film’s later stages, are lacking in dramatic quality.
Perhaps much to the dismay of some, Starred Up affords little space to imagine the development of a solidal relationship between inmates, as every pursuit of meaningful connections is violently interrupted by outbursts of rage and acts of resistance, in which individual inmates remain protagonists. However, Mackenzie has made it difficult for viewers to separate Starred Up’s distinct aesthetic mode from what feels like its mechanical reproduction of reality. Some would argue that this makes it a work of true realism. Deciphering the role of cinematic production is a complex and arguably circular task, but there is little doubt that this film revives our sense of the brutally surreal workings of incarceration, rehabilitation and social control, beyond political agendas and theoretical prescriptions. As for the places those reflections may lead us, well, that is most certainly down to the subsequent interventions of viewers.
Dir: David Mackenzie, 2013