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In A Brilliantly Disorienting Film, A Teenager Is 'Starred Up' To An Adult Prison


Our film critic David Edelstein has a review of a new film "Starred Up" by the Scottish director David Mackenzie. Actor Jack O'Connell from the British TV series "Skins" and the upcoming film "Unbroken" plays a teenage inmate in a maximum-security adult prison.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: None of the inmates in the brutal British prison drama "Starred Up" thinks of escape or even imminent release. It's not that kind of prison drama. The characters will be here for a long time. And they've accepted the hierarchy of power among prisoners, but the newest arrival hasn't yet.

He's a teenager named Eric Love. He has been starred up, meaning transferred to an adult prison because he's too violent for a juvenile lock-up. Eric marks his arrival by smashing furniture in his cell and making a run at the guards, chomping down on one guy's crotch and refusing to let go.

His hair trigger hostility to authority leaves him confused when he meets two father figures. One is an earnest group therapist named Oliver Baumer. The other is his actual father, Neville Love, a dominating inmate whom Eric barely knows. The psychodrama is so thick you can cut it with a straight razor.

"Starred Up" is directed by David Mackenzie, from a script by Jonathan Asser, and it's brilliantly disorienting. They take a world we thought we knew from other prison films and make it shattering in ways that go beyond physical violence. In part, that's because of the principal actors.

Eric is played by Jack O'Connell, who, at this point, is better known for a movie no one has yet seen - the upcoming adaptation of the harrowing best-seller "Unbroken," directed by Angelina Jolie. O'connell is remarkable. We see Eric's volatility even when he's still or when he lopes down the corridor of cells, radiating insolence, ready to strike back before anyone thinks to strike first.

What I love most is how O'Connell suggests Eric's wit. He wrinkles his for head in mock bemusement, the way Sean Connery used to, as if Eric is pretending to puzzle out a question about whom he should trust. The answer of course is no one. Experience has taught him that everyone is inclined to hurt him.

Ben Mendelsohn plays his dad - the actor best known for his psychotic mama's boy in the Aussie thriller "Animal Kingdom." His Neville is also deadly. The man is wired for conflict, but there's tenderness in him, too. First, for his cellmate and lover, then for the son he wants to protect - no, not just to protect - to oversee.

He has trouble, for instance, watching Eric ally himself with black prisoners. It makes him anxious. And he is driven to near madness by that therapist. He simply can't reconcile his desire to see his son helped and his jealousy that someone else is doing it.

Rupert Friend as the do-gooder Oliver is almost too good to be true. But the grim joke is that his group sessions can't go 30 seconds without a fight breaking out. Here, he visits Eric in his cell and makes the case for joining the group. By way of warning, the accents in "Starred Up" can be semi-impenetrable to us Yanks.


JACK O'CONNELL: (As Eric Love) You look nice.

RUPERT FRIEND: (As Oliver Baumer) Really?

O'CONNELL: (As Eric Love) Yeah. Where you from?

FRIEND: (As Oliver Baumer) Oxfordshire.

O'CONNELL: (As Eric Love) Oh.

FRIEND: (As Oliver Baumer) (Unintelligible). I was going to ask you if you'd like to walk to group today.

O'CONNELL: (As Eric Love) (Unintelligible). [Bleep]. (Unintelligible).

FRIEND: (As Oliver Baumer) Well, I feel at home here.

O'CONNELL: (As Eric Love) So this is where you open up to me and build trust, is it?

FRIEND: (As Oliver Baumer) Yeah. Now, I was sent away when I was very young to boarding school. And when I got out the other end, I found it really hard to manage in the outside world.

O'CONNELL: (As Eric Love) A posh boy.

FRIEND: (As Oliver Baumer) Not really.

O'CONNELL: (As Eric Love) What - you don't get paid?

FRIEND: (As Oliver Baumer) I had some family money after my grandma died.

O'CONNELL: (As Eric Love) Do so this is sort of like a hobby for you then?

FRIEND: (As Oliver Baumer) No. No, I need to be here.

EDELSTEIN: The makers of "Starred Up" clearly don't believe that Oliver can make much headway in a culture in which the people in charge - the prison administration - choose harsh punishment over therapy. But the filmmakers aren't cynics or nihilists, which can make all the difference in a prison movie. There's a logic behind the prison's ecosystem, and every man, no matter how vicious, has his reasons for trying to hold on to power.

Even in a movie so jangled and bloody, there are precious moments of silence in which Eric is alone in his cell, his guard down long enough to let him breathe. Jack O'Connell never lets us forget that Eric is still a boy and that even behind bars, it's possible to find a measure of self-control, which might be the truest form of freedom.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. The Toronto Film Festival is underway, and two of our producers, Ann Marie Baldonado and Lauren Krenzel, are there, scouting out movies we might want to do interviews about. They're writing about some of the films they've seen on our blog, which you'll find on Tumbler at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.
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