The industrious and prolific British writer-director David Mackenzie has been plugging away on the fringes of the film industry for well over a decade now, producing work both beloved (‘Young Adam’, ‘Hallam Foe’) and derided (‘Spread’, ‘You Instead’). With ‘Starred Up’, a prison drama written by Jonathan Asser, a one-time poet who used to run therapy sessions with prisoners, he may just manage his first bonafide hit.
Up-and-comer Jack O’Connell plays Eric, an authority-baiting teen psycho. His first week in grown-ups prison after being prematurely transferred (or ‘starred up’) from a young offenders’ institute is a busy one: he fashions a shank from a toothbrush, batters an inmate half to death, almost eviscerates one guard with a radio aerial, bites another in an extremely intimate area and – rather understandably – gets banged up in solitary.
But Eric has a bigger problem to contend with beyond his own destructive urges. His estranged dad, Neville (Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, with a wandering Cockernee accent) is on the same wing, and he’s an even nastier piece of work than junior.
For the most part this is furiously compelling stuff, convincingly mounted and superbly acted. O’Connell (a former mainstay of ‘Skins’ on TV and last seen in ‘300: Rise of an Empire’) is a screaming ball of energy, and there are solid supporting turns across the board, notably from Anthony Welsh and David Ajala as a pair of unexpectedly decent fellow cons. As with much of Mackenzie’s work there’s a queasy underlying tone of half-glimpsed eroticism, which adds another layer of intrigue.
So it’s disappointing when ‘Starred Up’ begins to lapse into soapy cliché. It starts gradually – a strident female governess here, a seedy Big Bad Boss Man there (and one who recalls Grouty from ‘Porridge’). But by the end we’re firmly in ‘Prisoner: Cell Block H’ territory and being asked to swallow a whole lot of blunt father-son melodrama and convenient, oh-look-they-forgot-to-lock-the-cell-door plotting. The result might well break Mackenzie out of the indie ghetto, but at times it can feel like a cop-out.