Scottish director David Mackenzie has made a career of creating complex and slightly surreal films with the likes of “Young Adam”, “Hallam Foe” and (his Hollywood debut) “Spread” all under his belt. But his latest film is perhaps his most uncompromising and grittily realistic work to date.

Eric is a young offender moved to an adult jail (which is known as being ‘Starred Up’). His violent nature brings him into conflict with both the prison authorities and the various factions of prisoners but Eric seemingly revels in the often brutal conflict he creates. Also in the prison is Neville – Eric’s erstwhile father who is unsure as to whether protect Eric or leave him to fend for himself. It soon becomes clear that Eric’s willingness to cause chaos will lead to his destruction. Will there be any way that Eric can find a way out of the abyss that is prison?

This is an often brutal piece of work – bringing to mind such classic British films as Scum - and Mackenzie’s desire for authenticity (the film was shot in two actual jails and scripted by a prison system therapist) makes for an uncomfortably claustrophobic feel. Jack O’Connell is brilliant in the central role, exuding a physical presence that speaks of danger but also possessing an intelligence and vulnerability. He’s well matched by Ben Mendelshon as his father, a man for whom prison life has become everything and no other hopes and dreams remain.

The film is something of a raw experience but is also utterly compelling as it exposes the hopelessness of modern criminal punishment.

PÖFF / Laurence Boyce

UK 2013