Starred Up starts like a punch to the face, then gets more violent and confrontational. This British prison drama is tough, remorseless, skilfully and plurally targeted, and often genuinely powerful. For director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) and screenwriter Jonathan Asser, a former prison therapist, a jail is not only a microcosm of society. It’s a kind of multiple parody – barbarous, mocking, grimly educative – of individual social institutions.
When violent ex-Borstal boy Eric (vividly played by Jack O’Connell, conveying jack-in-a-box menace even in contained moments) bursts into the adult “correctional facility” run by practical-minded despots – from the tough blonde governor (Sian Breckin) to the quietly sadistic deputy governor (Sam Spruell) – he seems to goad into action every sector of this sub-society.
If prison parodies family structure, there is Eric’s grotesque love-hate interaction with his inmate father (Aussie veteran Ben Mendelsohn deploying his rat-in-a-trap looks and skill set). If prison satirises social mobility, watch Eric move between mesh-floored levels to woo one minute the king – a cameo of velvet finesse from Peter Ferdinando as the chess-playing, audience-receiving top convict – and the next to wallop the lower-depth cons crowding his space.
It’s a mini-Machiavellian structure, Machiavellianly worked out, with added anarchy and mordant wit. It is hideously funny when Mendelsohn-as-dad tries to muscle in on his son’s anger management group, led by Rupert Friend’s well-meaning, woolly-brained therapist. It is pure black comedy when a first day’s group mentoring by guards begins with a pitched battle in Eric’s cell and ends with Eric sinking his teeth into a guard’s trousered genitals, refusing to relinquish until honour of some obscure but negotiable kind is satisfied.
Starred Up at best is a British answer – very British – to French cinema’s 2009 masterwork about banged-up lives, A Prophet. It’s British because the feline grace and logic of Jacques Audiard’s film are replaced by a thick-necked nihilist wit no less lethal, no less perceptive and – if we stand back for an appraising moment in a film that to its fast-paced credit hardly gives us time – no less truthful.