Extra DVD: Starred Up (18)

Jack O Connell playing Eric and Ben Mendelsohn playing Neville.
Jack O Connell playing Eric and Ben Mendelsohn playing Neville.

Starring: Jack O’Connell, Rupert Friend, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Spruell, Peter Ferdinando.

Ninteteen-year-old repeat offender Eric (Jack O’Connell) swaggers into his first adult prison as if he owns the joint.

An altercation with prison guards leads to a spell in solitary confinement and Eric is ushered before lifer Spencer (Peter Ferdinando), who rules the roost.

“No more silliness. I want a nice quiet wing,” Spencer tells Eric with an air of menace. 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. While Eric exorcises ghosts of the past, the lad also attends anger management sessions led by a volunteer called Oliver (Rupert Friend), whose personal involvement with inmates is a source of frustration for sadistic Governor Hayes (Sam Spruell).

Based on screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s experiences as a prison therapist, 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.

David Mackenzie’s film is almost as suffocating, anchored by a no-holds-barred performance from O’Connell. The 23-year-old Derbyshire actor electrifies every frame, offering glimpses of fear behind Eric’s cocksure facade as he rages against an imperfect system.

Friend and Mendelsohn are compelling in support and Asser’s script steadfastly refuses to polish any rough edges with pat sentimentality. Squeamish viewers 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.

Rating: ****