Starred Up : A Film Review

Director David MacKenzie. Written by Jonathan Asser. UK 2013. 1hr 46mins.
12 x 7 x 10 feet high
Every cell in the Crumlin Road jail was around these dimensions. Every prisoner shared a cell sometimes three to a cell. The windows were high and each of the 4 wings came off a control centre. The symmetry of the place is as unsettling as the restricted spaces inhabited by the regime and the inmates. Crumlin Road Jail is the centerpiece non-speaking part in this dark film.
Desolation Row
It was into this environment, first into a secure single basement unit young Eric Love, played with intensity and mastery by Jack O’Connnell is introduced to Adult Prison life. He has graduated in the slippery scale of prisoner status having Starred Up, been a leader without a cause in the young offenders unit he has been here despatched from. The rows of cells face each other like surreal bedsit flats with three inch thick steel doors and a letterbox viewer at just below eye level for vertically challenged screws. This really is the end of the current road. Many inmates due spending extremely long periods in these vile in-humane conditions. The narrative of prison reform is portrayed only a control freak. The character Oliver, a self contained anger management teacher whose instinct he selflessly deploys in managing those few attendees at his Governor authorised encounters with the prisoners. His skills are borne of his own well educated and unknown derangement with a singular role of being someone he defines as being of use to fellow human beings. At continual cost to himself. So the borders and boundaries for Eric are the confines. What of the fluid state of the rest, those whose bodies comprise around 87% water? The other inmates whose only defence seems to be their physicality and bruised minds.
Jail House Rules
On his first exercise the second main character dissects the circling inmates, signaling an existing status above the rest as he crosses and approaches an isolated Eric standing alone and surveyor of the factions and clocks all around him as he smokes or looks to smoke beneath the high mesh fence.
This is his father, Neville Love, played by a twitchy Ben Mendelsohn.
The role is equally as demanding and is collected and carried as a force of anger pent up and without sense of time or purpose. As a means of communicating beyond basic verbal discourse, other than the primary token of male presence, body language, Neville nudges, communicates a great deal with a bow, shuffle of the feet or his shoulders which begin rotating and halting as a hunched internal piston wrapped in swarf laden oil.
They play off each other’s unspoken love. The never purposefully expressed love.
The love absent and through lack of, the love missing when the demons appeared to enter their lives. The narrative develops progressively deepening the fault lines present in their lives, adding new layers on this layer cake violent environment without cliche or sentiment.
The writer, Jonathan Asser, himself an ex, Wandsworth Prison therapist – which I assume he has extemporalised a great deal on, (otherwise he has had a life of caning himself on finding a new route for others), has taken each scene of the relentless gruesome violence which makes this film grab your attention and wrung the blood and water out of it until everyone has a dry disembodied taste in their mouth. The director David Mackenzie ratchets up the bi-polar criminalistics of naked ruthlessness and somewhat nascent racist division. The group which Oliver operates acts as a racial forum showing the capacities to hate irregardless of race and how most violence occurs through primordial fear. Kick offs are the glue that binds the prisoners existence. They establish the knocking order and the pyramid has its head within the prison where issues can be taken.
A large part of the film is devoted to the ruinous state the regime is in. Far from reforms being exercised or even given some scope the inn-keepers are fractured and flawed and not involved on any emotional level and given the conditions it is not the least surprising.
If I saw a Chapel or a Congregational spiritual place where no words were to be spoken, thoughts could come and go and a higher essence be reached then it must have been in a nano second of light because I remember no such place. It had no visible drug issues either, except the hand to hand transactions – and one hand beneath pillow act, that seemed to have been the writers only hint of it. The use of force and values extended by the regime however were of a level which gave little prospect of reform or even retention of self belief. The fuses were very short for good reason in a lot of cases. That belied the measures and not the means.
The entry of Eric into this prison became a contest and battle with his self control. His father with a belated interest in his son begins to see sides of himself and his son that he wasn’t bargaining for. One kick off happens when it becomes obvious to him the son can make his own choices and the fact Eric is in his Neville’s long resided in establishment Neville find his marker has moved so menaces his son into explaining what he is at. The don’t answer back slippage used is well gone. Along with the characterisations and full on interactions, this is what engages and lifts the viewers expectations. How will this pan out? Will Eric reach a goal he has yet to be shown or will it end up in the bin as lives un recyclable?
It takes both an accomplished director and writer not to overwhelm and in creating a contemporary piece it carries without proselytising a message that much of what we are seeing could be the present condition somewhere of incarceration. The prisoners in the therapy group or the place were those attending get to speak their minds, to some extent show how things can improve and their dialogue speaks volumes more than reports by institutions written for institutions. The Regime has its conspirators as do the prisoners. The actors doing the rounds as warders and the ordinary joes caught up in their own choice of failures as criminals are very well acted throughout. The coloured prisoners work out who they can and cannot trust across the races and their own instincts tend to serve them at this sharp end where time boredom and reflection feature most of the time.
That is when it doesn’t kick off. But if I could give the prisoners a piece of advice it would be to keep their door on the landing closed as there are a lot of criminals about. Grayson Perry apparently couldn’t believe it when he was on in the streets of the Newtownards Road a while back – that people still left their front doors open. “It’s not like that around Islington where I live” he apparently said.

****4 A very well made British film which ‘captures’ the eye and takes no prisoners. Sorry couldn’t help it. Very compelling narrative and densely packed with bravura performances worthy of high award when the season comes next around. No small part played by Northern Ireland Screen and local contributors. Shame some nob is going to be distilling exotic drink near its walls. You would think someone would have learnt how bad addictions have taken hold here and elsewhere. Enough crime being drug and alcohol based locally to keep lock ups like the 4M’s – Magaberry, Magilligan, Mountjoy, Maze in business for years to come.
And why were there no drugs etc on the wings in show?
The product placement was of cigarettes and a shout out for a brand of rolling tobacco. Another of Belfasts poor trade history perhaps.

John Graham


23 March 2014

QFT Belfast Friday 21st March to 27th March 2014.
On general release.


Hebrews 13:3

Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt the pain in your own bodies.

Matthew 25:3

Then will they make answer, saying, Lord, when did we see you in need of food or drink, or wandering, or without clothing, or ill, or in prison, and did not take care of you.