Socialist Worker

Starred Up: Britain’s brutal prison system summed up in one sentence

Starred Up, a powerful film by a former prison therapist, exposes a barbaric world that breaks more people than it rehabilitates, says Antony Hamilton

Issue No. 2396

Jack O’Connell as prisoner Eric and Rupert Friend as therapist Oliver in Starred Up

Jack O’Connell as prisoner Eric and Rupert Friend as therapist Oliver in Starred Up

Powerful and gripping from the start, Starred Up throws you head first into the heavy-handed and brutish British prison system.

We follow Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), who is being transferred two years early from a young offender institution to the adult prison where his father is already an inmate.

He is no stranger to this cold world—for him violence is the norm.

The film opens with Eric entering the prison. The guards make him strip off and perform humiliating tasks. He is treated like an animal and removed from his humanity. 

The domineering nature of the guards is reflected in the behaviour of the prisoners. 

Inmates have business networks, working deals on the inside that secure money on the outside. This gets privileges for those most deeply involved.

Corruption allows hierarchies of both guards and prisoners to function without coming into conflict with each other.


The most reactionary aspects of society are normalised inside. Sexist language is crudely and consistently used to attack, undermine or even describe the most basic of things.

Homophobia plays a central role in bringing down the “alpha male” dominance of certain prisoners.

Eric’s father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) in particular feels he has nothing but his macho reputation. But, once stripped of this shell, he starts to come to terms with the relationship that he lost with his son and what prison has made of him.

The film portrays an inmate discussion group. It is based on the one that psychiatric patient turned prison therapist turned screenwriter Jonathan Asser used to run in Wandsworth prison.

In one scene four black men regurgitate some of the worst racism towards other black men. 

Here the divisions set about by the ruling class are represented in their most basic and raw state.

As well as demonstrating the sheer brutality of prison life, Starred Up opens up a can of worms about the British penal system.

In one scene Eric asks the guards why they would attempt to rehabilitate him, for if it works and is proved to work with others then eventually they’ll be out of a job.

In one sentence he has fundamentally questioned the entire prison apparatus—and is subsequently thrown back into his cell.

Starred Up combines powerful imagery with an intimate relationship between an institutionalised father and son.

There is tense music and moments of silence that further deepen the feeling of isolation.

All this makes it a must see.

Starred Up is on general release

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Article information

Tue 25 Mar 2014, 17:43 GMT
Issue No. 2396
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