Father and son, behind bars

by Mark Burger

The title of the award-winning prison drama Starred Up refers to an inmate who has “graduated” from a juvenile detention facility to an adult prison “” a situation that has befallen Eric, played by Jack O’Connell, a swaggering, hot-tempered 19-year-old with little foreseeable brightness in his future.

His recent transfer, however, has reunited him with his long-estranged father, Neville, played by Ben Mendelsohn, who is no stranger to violence-prone swaggering himself, and bent on preventing his son from following in his footsteps.

Needless to say, a generational conflict is brewing. Neville (“Nev” to his friends) goads his son into obeying the rules and checking his temper “” even when he himself doesn’t “” and prods him into joining a therapy session. But when Eric begins to make emotional inroads and displays a semblance of self-discipline, the older man is concerned that he’s losing control of the situation “” and his son.

Starred Up does boast an insider’s insight into the British prison system in that screenwriter Jonathan Asser was inspired by his own experiences as a prison therapist.

Director David Mackenzie captures the antiseptic, impersonal and even inhuman conditions behind bars, but there’s also a familiarity to the trappings and proceedings, especially for those who recall HBO’s long-running prison series “Oz” and a tendency to fall back on obvious symbolism. The final scenes between Nev and Eric have a melodramatic inevitability to them and that their surname is Love is rather too ironic.

What elevates Starred Up are strong, unsentimental performances, particularly that of Mendelsohn, who dominates the action even when not onscreen. David Avery, Anthony Welsh and David Ajala make solid impressions as fellow prisoners. Sam Spruell is the very picture of soulless bureaucracy as a smug prison official, and Rupert Friend plays the idealistic but intense therapist who appears in need of a little therapy himself “” preferably in a nice, warm climate far away from prison inmates.

Starred Up is scheduled to open Friday at A/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem.