This week's top pick is an acclaimed British drama that finally made its way across the pond - "Starred Up". Set in a UK prison, this unsparing film is most notable for the performance of its star Jack O'Connell (who we'll be seeing in the highly anticipated "Unbroken). Now having seen it for myself, I feel certain that we'll be seeing much more of him in the future.
"Starred Up" refers to the process of the early transfer of a prisoner from a Young Offender Institution to an adult prison. Such is the case with our protagonist Eric Love (Jack O'Connell), a troubled young man prone to violent outbursts. We meet him as he enters his new home, a place filled with criminals who are even more dangerous than he is. One of them turns out to be his own father (Ben Mendelsohn), thus allowing for an unusual father-son reunion after many years apart.
Theirs is not a loving reconciliation however, as deep-seated issues still linger between them. The harsh prison environment doesn't help matters either, with every act of kindness treated with suspicion. Watching the film reminded me of an observation from the film "Inception". In the film, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) remarks "you never really remember the beginning of a dream do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what's going on." It's a similar feeling with "Starred Up", as the film opens with Eric entering the nightmarish prison with no backstory, no smooth introduction. We're placed into the middle of this scary new world with its unruly population of violent men.
Director David Mackenzie does an excellent job maintaining the chilling tone of the film. There's never a feeling of safety in the prison as numerous violent acts happen without warning. Even in the more civil setting of the support group run by volunteer Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend), the atmosphere always gives a sense that bad things can still happen. It makes for unsettling viewing, but it's impeccably constructed.
Indeed, it's hard to turn away when the filmmaking is so compelling. The story really grips you, most notably when O'Connell is on screen. His performance is truly staggering, almost beastly in its physicality. The character's emotional instability is perfectly judged, quietly simmering at the surface waiting to explode. O'Connell has been working in the industry for a number of years, but this is clearly his breakout performance.
The rest of the cast provides strong support too, throwing up some pleasant surprises. Most notably, I was impressed with the "Lucozade guy" Anthony Welsh (he features in an ad that plays with our cinema's trailers), who plays a fellow member of Baumer's anger management support group. Likewise, the other prisoners are well-cast and bring a great energy to the film. As Eric's father, Medelsohn is reliable though very familiar. As an increasingly popular character actor, he's played similarly shady characters before ("Animal Kingdom", "The Place Beyond the Pines") and to better effect. I sincerely hope he'll be able to step out of this limited range and express more of his acting ability in the future, lest he become unfavourably typecast.
In short, "Starred Up" is a superb vehicle for the emerging talent of its cast and crew. The clunky pathos (though much needed) shows the tendencies of a first screenplay but overall, there's a lot to admire. You'll definitely want to remember the name Jack O'Connell.