Scum, this ain’t san. A slow hard boiled film that doesn’t deserve to be locked up and is reprieved by an unexpected brutal climax and a very talented cast.
It’s great to see low budget British films like this getting recognized and put out on the cinema circuit. We follow the incredibly volatile Eric Love (Jack Connell) as he is transferred to an adult prison and ends up in the same wing as his old man, the even more explosive Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn). Director David Mackenzie excels at providing a grim look at the prison system. What starts as a good opener as we go through the check in procedure (strip search, etc) at the prison soon meanders along, bordering on a Porridge parody. I mean once Eric walks through one walkway, we don’t need to see several. Connell is fantastic and gives a stellar performance. His character to start with is very unlikeable as he goes out of his way to make trouble. But through his bravado and dominance, you can’t stop watching him. And once he meets his father, a fantastically creepy Mendelsohn, we soon get a better insight into Eric and see why he is the way he is. The only problem Connell has always excelled at playing the hard man. You can only worry that he will be type cast but if he plays the part so well, does it matter.
Starred Up is gritty, violent, at times brutal but beneath that, Mackenzie does try and make a statement about young offenders and the inner workings of the prison, providing an all too realistic insight. This is demonstrated perfectly in the “anger management” class sessions led by posho volunteer Oliver (another stand out performance from Rupert Friend – Quinn from Homeland). His unique style and questionable motives make for good viewing as he desperately tries to help the offenders, a well acted bunch of British bandits; David Ajala, Anthony Welsh, David Avery, Ashley Chin and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr. This is where the film stood out from all the usual Scum spiel that has been ripped off endlessly. Eric’s erratic behaviour is crazy, at times brutal and at one point, hilarious. But once he flies off the handle, the more times he does it and effs and blinds with some (granted) memorable quotes, it gets irritating but that is the point. That is why he is here. The sessions allow us to see his vulnerability and makes for some great moments and banter as he bonds with the class.
As we delve deeper into the prison, you see that not even the powers that be are any better. Sam Spruell (The Hurt Locker) and Sian Breckin (recently featured in BBC’s Truckers) playing the shifty governors working and undoing Oliver’s work. However, where it excels in violence, testosterone, good characters and great acting, the film lacks in pace and stutters along. The hype helps draw attention but the first hour doesn’t justify it for me. However, the last half hour makes for crucial watching and redeems a film that was starting to lose my attention and questioned whether this should have been put on FilmFour as one of their TV movie premieres. However, it all seemed to be brewing up for one big climax (steady now) that is brilliantly done, compelling and endearing. All in all, a mixed bag but one of the better ones. The best prison film? Not for me san. But certainly not the worst. Mackenzie is definitely going to be one to watch for me now. 3.5/5
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