Jack O’Connell was brilliant in ’71 and here he plays another working class lad brought up in an institution. There may be dangers of typecasting except the characters are so clearly delineated that there’s no possiblity of eliding the two. It’s another fantastic performance by this rising star. He plays Eric Love, a 19-year-old we see arriving in prison for a ‘very long time’; we don’t know what his offence is but it will be violent. Like previous posting, Whiplash, Starred Up seeks to make deeply unsympathetic characters understandable. Jonathan Asser’s script is immensely successful in this no doubt aided by his work as a prison therapist.
O’Connell’s is one of many superb performances; Rupert Friend as ‘O’, a therapist, manages to convey his own mental trauma with little explanation as to why he, without pay, wants to help these violent thugs. Thugs they are but they are also people who have become violent because of how they were treated, as children, and their immersion in macho culture. Melodramatically Eric’s father, Neville (Ben Mendelssohn – fabulous), is in the same prison and in one scene they sit down to ‘talk’: Eric has only one question.
O tries to get the men in his group to have conversations with fellow inmates and hence empathise with each other and themselves. I see Eric’s behaviour, in the way he relates to authority, many times during the week in my work as a teacher. Young boys (mostly) who don’t want to learn academically and/or have ‘issues’ at home. The same surly refusal to engage, that O’Connell shows as Eric, marks them out, not as future criminals necessarily, but youngsters who are being failed by our education system. It is our duty to engage them. I’m not blaming teachers but the system that insists on ‘one size fits all’. The ones who are failed by the dogma destroying education are predominantly working class so the idiots running the Ministry of Exam Passing don’t care.
The violence is extremely violent and the climax had me twitching in my seat, a tribute to David Mackenzie’s direction. A quite breath-taking movie.