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Starred Up: Gritty, Award-Winning British Prison Drama
Titled from a popular term which describes the early transfer of a young offender from a juvenile detention facility to an adult penitentiary, Starred Up is by no means an easy watch. However, as much as it is difficult to digest at times, there is a certain poetic beauty behind its seemingly violent and destructive quality that makes it difficult to look away from.
Shot within the walls of an abandoned Belfast prison, the film opens with troubled nineteen-year-old Eric Love (O'Connell) undergoing an embarrassing admittance process, involving a complete body strip down, as he's transferred into an adult reformatory.
Immediately marked as a "single cell, high risk" type detainee, it doesn't take long for Eric – whose frequent and violent outbursts got him relocated there in the first place – to stir up trouble and make enemies both with fellow inmates and security guards.
After a mistaken attack on another inmate lands the young delinquent into the disciplinary hands of the law, Eric is soon approached – and rescued – by the in-house therapist, Oliver Braumer (Friend), who believes that he can help the young man rehabilitate.
Unfortunately, getting to the root of Eric's problems - and getting him to open up - is no easy task and Oliver - together with the other rehabilitating convicts - often find themselves the targets of both verbal and physical abuse. To top it off, Eric has to find a way to learn to share the walls of his new confinements with his estranged father, Nev (Mendelsohn), who is currently serving a life-sentence in the same prison.
Penned by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser – a former prison psychotherapist whose own experience with the British penal-system adds a hefty dose of authenticity and realism to the film – Starred Up, told through a series of wordless and violent expositions, is fuelled with gripping intensity which is hard to shake off. Relying on action, rather than words, the uniqueness – and the heart - of the story lies with the father-son narrative, whose bonding difficulties are depicted through the oppressiveness of life in prison.
Contributing to the movie's relentless and uncompromising approach to despair and violence, O'Connell – mostly known for his role in the British TV-series Skins and recently seen as the lead in Angelina Jolie's war-drama Unbroken – is an absolute standout; feral and unpredictable, his performance carries the film, while Mendelsohn is equally superb as a man whose persona and motives are seemingly hard to read.
Powerful, emotional but never too sentimental, Starred Up is a true British-prison drama classic whose quietly yielding power and passion for storytelling will leave you feeling captivated and moved.
They would try anything as if they had no fear of failure. They weren’t afraid of screwing up because the process and the act of creation were the important parts; if the product ended up sucking it was no big deal because they’d already be at work on the next piece. At least that’s the vibe that the documentary gives off. It also helps that the modern day, grown-up No Wavers seem every bit as cool as they did back then.
Following her biographical documentary of the late playwright, Andrea Dunbar, in the 2010's The Arbor, Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant is by no means an easy watch. Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s story of the same name, the latest effort from the British writer-director comes as a distressing and soulful throwback to a time when life was unforgiving and growing up was no easy task.
Set in the abandoned industrial fields of Northern England, The Selfish Giant follows the lives and shenanigans of thirteen-year-old, Arbor (Chapman), and his less courageous best pal, Swifty (Thomas). Arbor suffers from what appears to be an Oppositional Defiant Disorder and as a result, he is feisty, unpredictable and often uncontrollable, while Swifty, despite his towering presence, is the more placid of the two and tends to serve as the only voice of reason.
Growing on the impoverished streets of Bradford hasn’t been easy and the boys, whose unbreakable bond is the only things that keeps them going, are desperate to eke out a living and somehow offer a helping hand to their equally struggling families. After being expelled for fighting school-yard bullies, the boys come across some stolen copper wiring cables – which they recover from the nearby railway tracks – and decide to sell it to iffy local scrap-yard owner, Kitten (Gilder).
After their successful transaction, the boys are quickly lured into working for Kitten full-time as scrap metal collectors. However, Arbor is unfulfilled and soon persuades Swifty, who begins taking a liking into Kitten’s racing horse, into joining him in new – and seemingly dangerous –heists.
Much of the film’s success lies with its two unbelievably likable first-time stars, whose brutally honest and deeply-layered performance offer an incredible amount of weight to what is a pretty straightforward story. Chapman, as the foul-mouthed, thick-accented Arbor is utterly infectious, while Thomas, as his taller and softer shadow, is just as compelling.
The sun never shines in Barnard’s The Selfish Giant and there’s a lot of feelings of hardship o be found at its core; but thanks to the wonderful cinematography – where a blue-grey palate dominates over proceedings – and captivating performances, there’s also very particular beauty, and hope, to be found below the desolation.