You’d be forgiven for thinking that Starrred Up is just another British brawler movie. But this film doesn’t belong in the same league as Football Factory or even its better rival, Green Street. This belongs in the same category as alongside greats like This is England or perhaps even A Clockwork Orange. It may seem like hyperbole to praise something as unassuming as this tiny british drama sneaking into British cinemas (probably only for a short period of time) as being Kubrickian or Meadowsian (yes, I made that up) but it is justified, Starred Up really is extraordinary.
It follows Eric Love played by Jack Gleeson (Cook from TV’s Skins & This Is England) as a ruffian ‘starred up’ from a young offender’s institute to an adult prison, where he begins to shake up the order of things.
Although we’ve seen dramas in prisons countless times before (The Shawshank Redemption, Une Prophet & Hunger) Starred Up goes into so much more detail about the realities of life under lock and key. We see Eric’s first moments entering the prison methodically (painstakingly) captured on film; we are instantly immersed into this hard world without so much as a few seconds outside the walls of the prison. The way it is filmed is meticulous and visceral, we see every detail, every reaction and every conflict played out in minute detail to heart thumping effect. If you ever have imagined how tough prison is then Starred Up seems to show exactly how violent and brutal it is.
But what makes it really stand out as being a film of significantly higher qualities to those films who have violent characters (and scenarios) as their leads is that this film delves into the reasons and thoughts bubbling under the surface. Rupert Friend (best known for period dramas like Young Victoria and Pride & Prejudice) plays Oliver, a volunteer social worker who helps inmates work on resolving their problems, and it is through him that the more fascinating revelations come. Thankfully though, the film never descends into a simple tale in which the main character “sees the error of his ways” to become a good person, it is more rewarding and more surprising than that. We get the impression that there is no quick fix for Eric’s problems or the unresolved issues with his fellow-detainee father (Ben Mendehlson).
The lasting and most striking image of the film is of a turnstile which leads in and out of the prison. We see Oliver and Eric go through it and the camera lingers on the revolving door both times representing the divide between the two characters. One who can’t escape and another who doesn’t want to. There’s a sense of desperation in both of those shots; we feel that Eric wants to follow Oliver and Vice Versa but the touching reality is that neither is achievable. It is poignant and potent imagery which really sticks in your head, but it is just one of Starred Up‘s many moments laced with meaning.
Starred Up is a terrific example of what you can do with a prison drama, it is unflinchingly violent and gritty but also has brains to match its braun, with the help of Jack Gleeson’s awe inspiring central performance (he is sure to become the star of rough around the edges British drama) it is already locked in as being one of the best films of this year.