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10th Jun 2018

One of the best British dramas of the last five years on TV tonight

Wil Jones

It’s also one of the best prison movies of recent years

If you’re not familiar with the prison system, the phrase ‘Starred up’ might not mean much to you. Essentially, it refers to a juvenile inmate being moved to an adult prison prematurely, before they reach the age of 21.

That’s what happen to the protagonist of the movie of the same name. Eric, brilliantly played by Jack O’Connell, is a 19 year old who due to consistent violent outbursts in a juvenile detention centre, is transferred to an adult facility. Only the situation is more complicated that – another inmate in the very same wing is his estranged, violent father Nev (the great Ben Mendelsohn), and Eric is thrust back into the troubled youth he hoped to someday leave behind for good.

Starred Up (which is on Film4 at 11.40pm tonight), is at its heart a showcase for the phenomenal acting talents of Jack O’Connell, and it is a truly riveting, livewire performance. It was clear even from the days of Skins that O’Connell has the potential to be a star, though in truth he’s not quite had the opportunity to prove it yet. The Angelina Jolie-directed Unbroken was set to be his Hollywood breakthrough, though it ended up sinking with little fanfare. He’s been good in Netflix’s Godless, but one of these days he’s going to get the big role he deserves – and then we can point back to Starred Up and say we always knew it would happen.

There’s a bit more to the film than just O’Connell though. Rupert Friend plays Oliver, a prison therapist who tries to keep Eric on the straight and narrow, which leads to a tense battle of father figures between him and Nev for Eric’s future. What makes the character of Olivier so interesting though is that he is equally as troubled as the people he is trying to help. We don’t know if he is a reformed prisoner himself, or just a troubled soul looking for redemption, but it adds so much to the movie.

Screenwriter Jonathan Asser worked in prisons himself, and based the script on his own experiences – and the authenticity really comes through.

Starred Up is on Film4 at 11.40pm tonight.