We’re introduced to Eric (Jack O’Connell) graphically strip searched and escorted to a cell from which he will pass away an indefinite number of days, a goldfish amongst piranhas. It doesn’t take long to learn that Eric is more predator than prey, grotesque and angry. The intense physical ugliness of prison is harsh, the whole film unrelenting and brutal and no doubt tonally accurate, but its brutality feels cheap, coming across as drab macho posturing.
Starred Up will face a lot of comparisons with Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2008 film Bronson, mainly because of the similarly uncontrolled aggression of both protagonists. Unfortunately, Starred Up doesn’t have the style or vision to be so effective, largely because of some wooden acting and over-zealous cockney manners which would have made casting directors on The Bill cringe. It’s a strangely repetitive feeling film with every almost scene going for full on drama, featuring a pair of characters squaring up to each other which in a way works to give the film a really tight and aggressively claustrophobic atmosphere but it also wears thin when such posturing isn’t nearly as convincing as it needs to be.
It’s not totally without merit. Director David Mackenzie constructs a dirty, volatile atmosphere and there’s clearly something going on beyond the surface with Jack O’Connell’s character, who isn’t really able to breathe among the muddle of prison dwelling caricatures. Two hours of hatefulness and hopelessness are not necessarily a bad thing but it’s so littered with the tropes of the prison drama genre it can’t help but feel tired in these hands.
Starred Up is out now in the UK. Running time 105 mins. Certificate 18 (UK).