Later this year, young British actor Jack O'Connell has the potential to breakout in a big way when he takes on the lead role as real-life hero Louis Zamperini in the Angelina Jolie directed Oscar-bait film, Unbroken. But before seeing him in the noble prestige film in December, O'Connell gets down and dirty in David Mackenzie's excellent prison drama Starred Up. Eric Love (O'Connell) is a 19-year-old inmate that despite his young age is such a violent threat that he has been 'starred up' to join older convicts in a high security adult penitentiary. O'Connell bites into the role, and quite literally - in an early tussle with the the guards he clamps down on one of their testicles. O'Connell makes his dangerous young prisoner unpredictable and unsettlingly charismatic.
Although we are never informed of what Eric has actually done to land him in prison, judging from the way he quickly acclimates himself in his new cell (fashioning a weapon out of the melted end of a toothbrush and the blade of his safety razor, knowing the perfect hiding place to store it when he needs it), it's not hard to imagine prison has already played a large part in shaping his young life. Perhaps his issues can be traced back to his own convict father? As fate would have it, Eric's new confines include none other than his fellow inmate, dear ol' dad, Neville (Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn once again bringing nuance and complexity to the role of a volatile thug, as he did in both Animal Kingdom and The Place Beyond the Pines).
The father/son dynamic gives the film a deeper impact than your standard prison drama though this premise also feels too coincidental to be entirely real. Though it's worth noting that In the Name of The Father (1993), based on a true story, proves that such coincidences are not entirely improbable. Unlike that Oscar-friendly Daniel Day-Lewis vehicle, Starred Up is raw and unflinching in its violence. Its hand-held cinematography, darting in and out of dirty cells and lingering on bloody brawls, shows a realistic version of what life in prison is like. Where you can never let your guard down and using the bathroom or taking a shower catches you at your most vulnerable. Forming a homosexual relationship isn't out of the question, either. (When Eric discovers his father's bunk mate is more than just a friend, Neville's nonchalantly blows it off, "It's prison, isn't it?")
Father and son have a push and pull as they discover who each of them have become over the years and they soon settle into a normal family dynamic with the father watching out for his son and the child being embarrassed by his "pathetic" father.
As the film progresses Eric shows signs that he's more than a wild animal. After some reluctance, Eric joins a therapy group headed by a determined and dedicated social worker named Oliver (Rupert Friend) to control his outbursts. The authenticity of the film may be attributed to screenwriter Jonathan Asser who actually worked as a volunteer in the British prisons in a similar capacity as Oliver. He must have witnessed first hand the conditions of the prisoners, but he also sees the penal system as just as corrupt as the men being held captive-which plays a large part in the surprisingly sentimental conclusion. Whatever steps Eric makes to improve himself, the system is not interested in his betterment, only in his restraint.
Whether or not Unbroken makes a star of O'Connell later in the year, his gritty work in Starred Up already proves he is an actor of considerable talent and worthy of immediate attention. Starred Up is the perfect film to showcase this exciting new actor's skills. B
Related: On Unbroken's Olympics preview