Louis Bayman reviews a gritty new prison film.
Much of British cinema can be split into two opposing classes: genteel heritage versus the grit of films from Ken Loach to Guy Ritchie. This prison film belongs to the latter type, and is seemingly based on the idea that while we are all in the gutter, some of us are looking to be ‘starred up’ – that is, marked as an especially and unpredictably violent prisoner.
The film stars Jack O’Connell (from Eden Lake and This Is England) as Eric, a dangerous criminal teenager arriving in an adult prison. Immediately revealing himself to be ingeniously ferocious to inmates and warders alike, this prodigiously hard-bitten (literally, in one scene that will have male audience members crossing their legs in anguish) con has to confront the interlocking gangs that run the prison, and one particularly insistent older inmate who seems to know something about Eric’s childhood.
Prison films delight in showing us a new inmate’s introduction to the regulations of their confined community (a trait they share with school films). Films set in male prisons differ to those in female institutions, for although they both use their jail settings to show the creation of social structures, dramas like the Australian TV series Prisoner Cellblock H or the 70s Brazilian ‘Women-in-Prison’ movies flit between soap opera, pornographic fantasy and female revenge story (demarcating the representation of women according to submission, sex or rebellion). Male films take more pleasure in a new prisoner’s individual mastery of the environment, and in lashings of ultra-violence, a promise played up in the marketing for Starred Up (although the potentially homosexual undertones of its concentration on the protagonist’s impressive physique are displaced onto an underdeveloped theme regarding his ‘prison puff’ inmate father).
What gives the prison film its tension is a dynamic between trapped, animalistic energy and the dream of liberty. While U.S. versions like The Birdman of Alcatraz and Shawshank Redemption tap into the poetry of the redemption of the condemned man, British films such as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner tend to take upon themselves a more directly social mission. This is played out in Starred Up through the presence of a prison counsellor intent on affirming the inmates’ common humanity by running a series of anger management classes. His own battle with the cruel prison authorities and an arbitrary social care system serves to play out the debate regarding rehabilitation or punishment in the criminal justice system.
Most of all then, this film is an inheritor of Scum, which, for all its claims of social responsibility (Scum took credit for the closing of the borstal system), offers for our viewing pleasure the most sadistic situations for its working class teenage protagonists. Which makes Starred Up an experience of teeth-clenching violence, as the trailers promise, while lacking some of the coherence needed to make good its promises of social concern.