Year after year, in that strange, uncertain flight from the B-list to the Hollywood hive, this or that actor’s said to be swarming his or her way among the honeyed crowd, golden at last. In 2014, after starring in the Irish Troubles thriller ’71 and in Angelina Jolie’s wartime epic Unbroken, the buzz hummed in the UK that this was Jack O’Connell’s time. The working-class, Derby-born O’Connell had mostly been in TV series (including cop-show The Bill and teen-drama Skins, after playing loose-cannon skinhead Pukey in Shane Meadows’ This is England) for nearly a decade before his arresting turn in David Mackenzie’s eighth feature, Starred Up (2013).
The prison drama, shot in one narrow, constricted space after another, is all about containment, and what can barely be contained is the smoldering rage of Eric Love (O’Connell), a young offender so eager to “kick off” that he’s been “starred up”—moved up, two years early, to an adult prison. We enter the jail right alongside Eric, deemed “single cell, high-risk,” watching as the guards process him—he strips down and squats so they can check, with a long-handled mirror, that he hasn’t keistered anything—and he goes through door after door, metal-lattice grille after metal-lattice grille barring and barrier-ing the way. But once he’s in his cell (which looks to be about 5′ x 8′), he cannily goes to work, soldering together a makeshift razor-knife, just in case, hiding it up in the light fixture.
O’Connell’s physicality as an actor—coiled intensity, searing stares, brooding fury, sudden violence—is blazingly showcased here. And it always feels as if we’re caught up in among resentments, flare-ups, even long-running relationships of convenience. (It’s not even clear at first that Neville [Ben Mendelsohn] is Eric’s estranged father, in custody since before Eric was put in care as a young boy.) All this midst-of-the-action feel is largely because the script, by Jonathan Asser—distilled from his 12 years as a voluntary therapist at HM Prison Wandsworth, the UK’s biggest jail—offers little context or excuse, just dropping us into the fray. There are the briefest of silent interludes, dreamy and plangent, where the sunlight comes in through the high window as Eric moves about his cell.
Another father figure is therapist Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend), who tries to get Eric, snarly and seething, to sit down with his group. They happen upon each other as guards are trying to get Eric under control—he’s managed to get a grip, with his teeth, on one guard’s delicate bits. This is a brutalize-or-be-brutalized world; encounters bristle with suspicion and edginess. (The only glaring cliché is a brutal, colluding warden.) Racial tensions, sexual slagging-off and male territorialism snake their way about the jail’s metal stairs, in and out of the cramped cells, their doors clanging shut. And all the volcanic volatility’s only inflamed by Neville, eyeing Eric’s chumminess with his fellow therapy-group members.
The final image here is a pointed one—a metal revolving door, leading back into the slammer, spins round, round, round until it comes to a creaky, tinny-sounding halt. In Starred Up, prison is no rehab centre for violent men or depressurization chamber for male rage—it’s more like a giant chafing dish, watched over by heat lamps, its meaty contents kept stewing and simmering. V