Paul Lister’s review published on Letterboxd:
A brutal prison drama. "Starred Up" is unflinching in it depiction of prison life in the UK but it is more a psychological study in anger management, sort of like a take no prisoners - sorry for the pun - version of Good Will Hunting, but with out the love story. The violence in the movie is very realistic as is the language used by the inmates, you won't hear "You fuckin cunt" as much in any other film. The film also features a number of outstanding performances not least from Jack O'Connell as Eric, Ben Mendelsohn as his father Neville and Rupert Friend the counsellor Oliver, who looks to help Eric integrate himself and get over the severe psychological damage that has been inflected upon him through his life.
O'Connell is a name to watch, he absolutely command every scene he is in, whether it is him quietly taking in his new surroundings at the beginning (he has been transferred from the Juvenile system to an adult prison and it is clear he has been around the block a bit), psychotically assaulting prison guards or the way in which he subtly shows signs of progression and integration with the others in his group. It is his tempestuous relationship with his father, who he now shares a prison with that makes this such a fascinating movie. The relationship goes a long way in explaining why Eric is as rage filled and damaged as he is because Neville has the same characteristics. Neville constantly claims to want his son to get better and get out of prison, not wanting him to get to a point where he can't leave at all, but Neville's own lack of control on a psychological level means that he message often comes across as mixed at best. Mendelsohn has often provoked feelings of fear, repulsion and intimidation in me in his past roles, take his performance in Animal Kingdom for one, he is a nasty piece of work who can appear friendly and good willed on the surface but he will also quietly manipulate you are force you drugs and kill you if he so chooses. In Starred Up he is very intimidating, dangerous and unpredictable to the point that it can be hard to believe his interest in his sons safety is sincere. As the film plays out though it becomes clear that it is the case, Neville has never seemingly had the chance to receive the proper help that Eric is afforded though. It turns out then that the biggest psychological barrier that Eric faces is his own father and it's right slap bang in front of him, often during the group sessions he attends too!
The idea of these group sessions that take place in the film have been seen before countless times before. What is important to me is whether I am interested in the character enough to care about how he progresses in them. In this case I am because of O'Connell's performance but also because Rupert Friend comes across as completely sincere in his efforts too, he clearly comes from a damaged past too, not that this initially makes a blind bit of difference to Eric, it takes Oliver to admit he wants to physically hurt him before Eric even gives him the slightest chance. Friends role is one of a man who is considered weak by Neville and probably of the Prison staff as well, he is working there selflessly, for free to help people, the Prison staff work against him from the beginning, the film is certainly critical of the Prison system itself in that way. They only accept the idea of putting Eric into the sessions to see it crash and burn. That way they can be vindicated to bring it to a close and do things their own way, the more brutal and unconstitutional way, you could say.
Ultimately Starred Up is a film that deals with things we have seen before but it does it in a unflinching and real way. It's a powerful films, not always easy to watch but completely worth the effort.