No punches pulled in brutal drama

Jack O'Connell as Eric in 'Starred Up'.
Jack O'Connell as Eric in 'Starred Up'.

The sins of a jailbird father are revisited upon an embittered son in David Mackenzie’s gritty drama.

Based on screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s experiences as a prison therapist, ‘Starred Up’ pulls few punches in its depiction of life behind bars, delivering a flurry of beatings as characters jostle for supremacy inside crumbling walls where everyone can hear you scream.

Squeamish audiences are sentenced to their worst nightmare: a journey into an unforgiving world where disputes are settled with a slash from a makeshift shank fashioned from a toothbrush and razor blade.

Prisoner officers are just almost as cold-blooded as the offenders in their care, meting out violence to keep troublesome inmates in line. If all else fails, ringleaders are strung up from the bars of cells - their deaths falsely attributed to suicide.

At the centre of madness is 19-year-old repeat offender Eric (Jack O’Connell), who swaggers into his first adult prison as if he owns the joint.

It transpires that Eric’s father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is at the same facility and operates as one of Spencer’s underlings. Their reunion after 14 miserable years of estrangement is far from happy.

Punctuated by explosions of unsettling and graphic violence, Starred Up is reminiscent of Alan Clarke’s seminal 1979 film Scum, which chronicled one young man’s journey through the hell of a British borstal.

Mackenzie’s film is almost as suffocating, anchored by a no-holds-barred performance from O’Connell that’s a far cry from his formative years on Channel 4 teen drama ‘Skins’.