Saturday, 12 October 2013

Starred Up

Odeon West End
11 October 2013

The trailer. From here.

Ignore the happy(ish) ending and this prison tragedy has much to recommend it.

At least we’re not in a US prison, opines one character here during his regular group therapy session, as they all have sex with each other. Sexual violence is mercifully one aspect of violence not depicted in this prison drama.

It’s plenty violent enough. It seems to take only a few minutes for new inmate Eric, a teenager moved to the prison after proving too aggressive for juvenile detention, to be involved in a murderous fight with the guards. The threatening mood is unrelenting.

Film – cinema or TV – is peculiarly well suited to prison drama, because it conveys a sense of actually being there that no other medium can match. Cinema is particularly effective, as the isolation we feel in a darkened auditorium heightens the impact.

Prison dramas can go at least two ways. They can choose to highlight the desolation of a long period in prison, the hopelessness. Or they can focus on the idea that a community of aggressive criminals is likely to be itself extremely volatile. The latter path would seem incompatible with suggesting the boredom of prison life, as violence, even implicit violence, is exciting, in some cases fatally so.

Redemption, or its possibility, is another feature of the genre, and it appears here. It’s the leaven in an otherwise unpalatably heavy bread, and as with other necessary features of an artform, whether it works must be judged case-by-case.

In this film it comes through group therapy, and the group’s support role for Eric, who seems to have received no support from anywhere else, especially his parents. The subtlest parts of this piece are these scenes, where violence is slowly, extremely slowly, brought under some kind of control.

Of course, there are other ways a convict can get support, and Eric is introduced to the organised crime side of prison by his father, who is implausibly a fellow convict (I don’t mean its implausible he is a convict but rather that they would end up in the same prison).

Unfortunately, despite some committed acting, the father-son dynamic greatly weakens the film. The plot turns melodramatic at the end, and at the very end becomes a version of the ‘I love you dad’ films so popular in US cinema.

The father, it should go without saying, is a 'hardened criminal'. I’m not sure repairing the father-son relationship in such circumstances is as much a sign of progress for Eric as the film-makers seem to think. Perhaps they want us to be ambivalent over the ending?

Almost every prison drama contributes to the important, thankless and depressingly unending cause of justice system reform. Such things as group therapy should hardly need defending, but it seems they do. If the film was going to defend it, some dramatic tension was needed, and that is provided by the father.

Given that unpromising artistic constraint, necessary for its broader political point, this film could have been a lot worse. The ending is a betrayal: this is really a tragedy with an almost literal deus ex machina, a throwback to earlier centuries.

There's a high standard of acting, from the central cast through to smaller speaking roles. The directing was unobtrusive, and served the story well.

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