At first glance, from the trailers, Starred Up appeared to be just one more thuggish, thick ear British gangster movie, albeit one with a very odd title. But then I read an interview in Sight & Sound with the screenwriter, Jonathan Asser.
Starred Up is a prison movie and Asser had worked for years in education, at Feltham Young Offenders Institution, and then Wandsworth Prison. Suddenly I was interested in the film. It was a rare instance of someone writing from a position of knowledge.
And it turns out Starred Up is a great film. Certainly one of the best of the year. I can't recommend it too highly... though it is unremittingly brutal, so be warned.
The title refers to young offenders who are so violent and unmanageable that they are 'starred up', i.e. transferred to an adult prison. In this case, the young offender has a reason for wanting to be sent to a grown up jail. (Incidentally, the original title was 'L Plate' — sardonic prison slang for a life sentence.)
When Asser wasn't working in prisons he was writing poetry. And the visual quality of his poems suggested to an astute reader that he should try a screenplay. He took a shot at it, and after years of encouragement and mentoring he developed the brilliant script that is Starred Up. Perhaps the most crucial piece of advice was to change the nephew/uncle relationship to a son/father one. (A classic principle of screenwriting: always concentrate situations and make them more powerful.) Now the film suggests that its hero has deliberately plunged into the hell of adult prison in search of his father...
Besides the outstanding script, Starred Up is also superbly directed, by David Mackenzie who made one of my favourite films of 2009, the offbeat and cynical Spread (you'll never forget the end title sequence!). And the cast of Starred Up is also first rate, including Jack O'Connell as the young inmate and Ben Mendelsohn, who was so great in Killing Them Softly, as his dysfunctional dad.
The film depicts a situation of violence, cruelty and utter hopelessness, yet it manages to find a glimmer of hope. It is extremely powerful. After the (very moving) conclusion there was spontaneous applause from audience at the Thursday night screening I attended — in Wandsworth, appropriately enough.
(Image credits: The black and white poster is from IMDB. The photo of Jonathan Asser beside the poster is from Film 4. The photo of O'Connell and Mendelsohn is from Coreplan. The colour poster is from Letterboxd.)