Starred Up played this week at the tail end of the Fall Focus presented by Independent Film Festival Boston. Though technically a 2013 release, the British prison drama has yet to really come out stateside and remains very much a movie of interest. Part of this is due to the recent emergence of Jack O’Connell on the international stage – he carried the little-seen ’71 and will carry the likely-to-be-widely-seen Unbroken, and he’s even in the Oscar conversation for the latter. O’Connell’s been in a bunch of stuff prior to the last few years, and his young role in the comparatively weak Michael Fassbender film Eden Lake probably foreshadows what’s to come most effectively. But if you want top-notch O’Connell in a nearly-top-notch film, Starred Up is the one to check out.
The prison genre is a storied one in film. Starred Up is a very different movie than Bronson – one of the most brilliant entries in the genre in recent memory – but it still recalls the 2008 Tom Hardy flick a little too heavily at times. This might be an inescapable element of the genre – it’s a prison movie, what did you expect? – but it might also be because O’Connell’s Eric Love simply seems to want the incredible amount of violence swirling around his little stone cell. Bronson and Love seem to share that from the outset – there is a scene in both films in which guards pile up outside the cell door in full riot gear as the gleeful prisoner, be it the hulking Bronson or the roguish Love, douses himself in oil and and prepares for the fight. The fight seems ritualistic, and for Bronson it certainly is. It’s sport. But this is where Starred Up and Eric Love diverge, and while it’s not necessarily a better film it’s certainly a more grounded, realistic genre entry.