Scott Anderson’s review published on Letterboxd:
Jack O'Connell is clearly about to break through and become a major film star, and while I personally didn't care for the Angelina Jolie directed Louis Zamperini biopic Unbroken at all, the reason I didn't find the entire experience to be completely vile was on a performance level, most specifically the work of O'Connell in the lead role. That brings me to another 2014 release although one far further under the radar and unknown to most, the British prison crime drama Starred Up with that fresh faced O'Connell in the lead again, and I had to laugh as I watched this film because I have to feel bad for the guy. Twice this year I have admired his performances and both times the roles have involved getting the shit beat out of him and facing near death experiences.
The key difference is that the punishment involved in the Unbroken narrative was draining to the point that I shut down, I couldn't take it anymore because the entire experience was so one note and forced, like I was literally being told when to care, like they were begging for me to drop a single tear on certain cues. Starred up is hard hitting and painful but appropriately so, never manipulative, never forced, and surprisingly never draining despite the gritty conditions of the setting and the dour mood that hangs over a majority of the sequences. The story here revolves around a young man named Eric Love, played by Jack O'Connell, as he transfers from a facility that houses juvenile detainees to an adult prison. Eric will have to navigate some far rougher waters in this new location, but one inmate complicates the dynamic even more than what you would expect: his also incarcerated father, Neville, played brilliantly by the always excellent Ben Mendelsohn.
The prison location feels overused and familiar in the world of cinema, and some of the sequences in which Eric attends group therapy sessions to try to deal with his over-the-top aggression feel like a scarier version of Good Will Hunting, yet despite this Starred Up transcends any sort of narrative drag due to cliches because it is so damn well made and the performances are top notch. At the end of the day, this isn't a film a love on a personal level and it isn't one that I will crave revisiting one day as I count the minutes remaining at work, but I also would be more than willing to watch again down the road because the craft and characters deserve to not be forgotten. It's impossible not to admire every single little thing that Starred Up does well.