Film Review: Starred Up

Eric (Jack O’Connell) is a violent young offender who’s been moved to an adult prison. Whilst he’s locked up he brutally clashes with prison guards, but is taken under the wing of prison therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend). However, Eric’s biggest problem lies with fellow inmate Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) who also happens to be his father.

It always helps when someone heavily involved with a film can draw upon personal experiences in some way, and that’s exactly the case with Starred Up screenwriter Jonathan Asser. Asser worked as a voluntary therapist in HM Prison Wandsworth, and if he’s seen half the things that go on in Starred Up, then that’s all the encouragement anyone should need to stay on the right side of the law.

As you’d perhaps expect from a gritty British prison drama, Starred Up (the film is named after a term given to a young offender who is moved up into adult prison) can be pretty brutal and uncompromising. Within the first few minutes, Eric has already put a snapped radio aerial to a guard’s throat and that pretty much sets the tone for the film.

However, fortunately there’s a massive amount more to the film than just prison brutality. At the centre of the story is Eric’s relationship with two different people: his father Neville who’s also in prison with him, and Oliver the prison therapist. Both Neville and Oliver offer Eric something missing from his life up to that point, and although Eric is resistant to both in the outset, it’s interesting to see how the relationships develop and evolve over the course of the film.

Jack O'Connell

See, Eric is a pretty abhorrent individual; there’s almost nothing to like about him whatsoever, and yet somehow you end up feeling sympathetic towards him. It might be pushing it to say he’s some kind of anti-hero, but there’s just something about him that instils a sense of sympathy in you.

This could very well be down to Jack O’Connell’s superb central performance. O’Connell fills the role of Eric with malice and angst, and it’s a fantastic physical performance at times, although he also brings a wonderful layer of vulnerability to the character. He perfectly shows the character’s inner conflict, and there’s a real tension whenever he’s on screen as he’s just so unpredictable. Ben Mendelsohn is also excellent as Eric’s father Neville. There’s a similar conflict within him, struggling to know how to do right by his son whom he’s never really been around to care for.

What does let the film down a little is that at times it feels somewhat contrived and cliched. Making a weapon out of a toothbrush and razor blade, a corrupt prison governor, the suggestion that you’ll turn gay in prison; this kind of thing doesn’t hold the story back at all, but does feel like we’ve been there a few too many times before.

Some slight contrivances aside, Starred Up is a solid character-driven drama. It’s bleak and unflinching at times, which may put some people off, but it’s well worth seeing for Jack O’Connell’s performance alone.


  • Brilliant performance from Jack O’Connell
  • Ben Mendelsohn also impressive
  • Interesting relationships between the main characters


  • Sometimes contrived and cliched

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons


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50 thoughts on “Film Review: Starred Up

  1. vinnieh says:

    Great review, been hearing a lot of positive notices about this movie.

  2. theipc says:

    Sounds tough…

  3. i’ve heard a lot about this film, mostly that it’s not as good as it could be but that the central performance is brilliant (also, that it’s hard to watch without thinking of Alan Clarke’s ‘Scum’). I didn’t know Ben Mendehlson was in it. Great actor: He was great in ‘Killing Them Softly’ and ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’. Honestly, for a long time I thought he was fellow Australian actor Noah Taylor

    • I’ve heard a few people compare this to ‘Scum’, but I haven’t seen that to compare. There were definite parts that could have been improved, but I still thought it was very well put together, and the central performances were excellent.

      • i haven’t seen ‘scum’ in at least 25 years. My memory of it is that it was very good but very nasty; i’m not sure if i’d be in a rush to see it again

  4. I really liked it too Chris. But I agree the subplot with the governor was very clichéd

  5. Is this the new daddy of British prison movies do you think? Cracking read Chris.

  6. Where did you see this!? I’m dying to check it out ever since I missed it at TIFF in September! Excellent read, bud! Making me even more impatient ;).

  7. ruth says:

    I haven’t heard of this yet but Jack O’Connell is gonna be the lead in Angelina Jolie’s next film. I’m curious to see this one now as I also like Rupert Friend. Nice review Chris!

  8. Great post, Chris. I’m curious and would love to watch a British prison drama. This looks awesome.

  9. table9mutant says:

    Great review. : ) But…. I think I’ll stick with The Shawshank Redemption – a little more uplifting. ; )

  10. Abbi says:

    This fell really flat for me. O’Connell was great but it felt like they didn’t give the therapy group enough time to breathe and there was so much more they could have done with Eric’s friendship with his group mates. I wanted to love it but it felt like it didn’t live up to its potential.

    Completely unrelated, I live really close to Wandsworth prison… scary place.

    • Is it really as bad as they make it out to be? It looks utterly horrendous! I did actually wonder if it was as horrible as they make it seem.

      Shame the film didn’t work too well for you. It definitely has its issues but I thought it worked for the most part. Totally with you on the therapy group though, it’d have been nice to see more of that. But I guess they were trying to balance that with the stuff going on with his dad.

  11. Great review, Chris. Ben Mendelsohn has flown under the radar a bit but he’s pretty good and O’Connell will blow up in the next few years, I think.

  12. thomasjford says:

    I’ve heard mixed review of this one. Glad you liked it though man. I’ll have to check it out I think.

  13. I’m growing ever more curious about this one. Any chance you’ve seen “In the Name of the Father”? And if so, how do you think it compares?

  14. elina says:

    O’Connell got to practice on Skins, I guess, and definitely can play that kind of a role. It sounds tough, really tough to be honest, so I’m not all that sure I want to see it. Maybe your (brilliant!) review was enough. 😀

    • Thanks for the kind words 🙂 I didn’t realise O’Connell was in skins, but I can imagine it was a similar-ish kind of role. Although I’d have thought this takes it up a few notches. It can be a little tough in places but I think it’s worth it.

  15. lauren says:

    I always thought O’Connell had good potential as an actor so I’m glad he’s getting the chnace to really show what he can do. This film is probably a bit too depressing for me. Great review though.

  16. I thought this one was pretty good. Jack O’Connell gives a fantastic performance – I agree he makes this violent character quite sympathetic. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in ’71 later this year.

  17. thycriticman says:

    This is getting rave reviews everywhere I look. I’m a big fan of prison films and television shows so I think that I will be getting a big kick out of this one! Nice review! It seems like the performances make it worthwhile! Cliche is acceptable sometimes if the film can work with them in an exciting manner!

  18. Sounds interesting I am going to look out for this. Thanks !

  19. Victor De Leon says:

    Going to check this one out. Thanks and good job!

  20. Mark Walker says:

    Another fine piece of work, my man. I’m intrigued by this one. The vibe seems to be positive surrounding it. I’m also quite partial to Mendelsohn.

  21. Claire Duffy says:

    I’ve had my eye on O’Connell for a while (worked in casting way back when) so thrilled to see him properly arriving – haven’t seen this but it’s definitely going on the to-watch list – thanks!

    • Well I think you’ll be very impressed with O’Connell here. If this is anything to go by he should have a big future. Hope you get around to seeing it!

      • rebecca says:

        I watched this film first time tonight and I cryed thought it was amazing most definitely a must see for me also jack is an amazing actor I loved him in eden lake and skins

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