Starred Up review: no feel-good redemption to be found

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Starred Up green light

Could be the most realistic depiction of the horribleness and the ineffectiveness of institutional incarceration — on levels that impact both the individual and society on the whole — that I’ve ever seen.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I’ve never been to prison, so I can’t know for sure, but David Mackenzie’s (Young Adam) Starred Up could be the most realistic depiction of the horribleness and the ineffectiveness of institutional incarceration — on levels that impact both the individual and society on the whole — that I’ve ever seen. The title might sound sort of dreamy, but it refers to the status of a young offender in the British penal system who is prematurely moved to an adult facility, which is what happens to 19-year-old Eric (Jack O’Connell: 300: Rise of an Empire)… and so, right there, is the first level of awfulness, when a young person who might have a shot at genuine rehabilitation is thrown into the midst of hardened criminals with decades of experience not only as bad guys but with what it takes to survive in prison. And such is what Eric — tough as he is, or tough as he thinks he is — encounters: brutal men who will mold him in their own image, a molding that Eric will comply with if he doesn’t want to end up dead. But then he finds a protector in Neville (Ben Mendelsohn: The Place Beyond the Pines), who becomes something of the father figure Eric never had growing up… because Neville is, in fact, Eric’s own father, and he’s been absent in the young man’s life precisely because he’s been in prison! *brain hurts* (Then again, how positive a role model would Neville have been even if he’d been around for the boy? Contemplating this is part of the deep hurt that this savagely critical film provides.) The prison therapist, Oliver (Rupert Friend: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) — clearly based on first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s own experience in the same role in the largest prison in London — also sees hope for Eric, but the young prisoner is resistant, to say the least: How much can a posh university boy sympathize with what Eric has been through? Men who were abandoned and/or sexually abused as children become men with anger and control issues become men who end up in prison where they learn nothing but how to perpetuate their own dysfunction and pass it on to others. It’s incredibly depressing, and would serve as a wake-up call to a society that was actually concerned with taking care of people, rather than just throwing them away and forgetting about them. I don’t hold out a lot of hope that this film — or any film — can have the impact it should, because we don’t live in that society. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

viewed during the 57th BFI London Film Festival

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Tue, Aug 26, 2014 8:50am

From what I’ve read, the Scandinavian countries do have a more successful prison system that is based on more rehabilitation rather than simple incarceration and they do tend to have a much lower recidivism rate. Don’t get me wrong there are some people who do need to be locked up forever but the legal system of any country needs to be able to distinguish between people who have basic consciences and have committed an act of moral failing and between those who are sadistic and evil.

What was the crime that the main character committed?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  David
Tue, Aug 26, 2014 12:29pm

I don’t recall. I don’t know it’s ever mentioned. But he’s not someone who is beyond rehabilitation. And no juvenile offender deserves to be housed with adults in prison.