Film Review: The Raid 2: Berandal (18)

Two years ago, healing Gareth Evans was a name unknown to the western hemisphere, a Welshman living in Indonesia, making low-budget films for a largely domestic audience. Then came The Raid, a stunning breakout hit that garnered critical and popular acclaim. An incredibly simple set-up (a SWAT team storms a high-rise full of disreputable sorts) was the perfect platform for Evans’ kinetic direction: ninety minutes of near-constant peril at the hands of machine-gun and machete wielding maniacs. Masterful martial-arts choreography combined with a copious supply of gore refreshed audiences getting too familiar with Hollywood films cutting back on splatter for that coveted 12A rating and the much larger pool of ticket buyers it allows. While fans of The Raid tended their wounds, Evans and star Iko Uwais wasted no time in filming a sequel. Berandal (Indonesian for ‘thug’) is a hugely ambitious, sprawling crime epic that contrasts starkly with the contained urgency of the original and, needless to say, the 18 rating is very much earned.

We start directly after the first film, with Rama (Uwais) being persuaded by an internal affairs officer to go undercover. He is subsequently sent to prison in order to befriend Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo), who controls a large proportion of crime in the city. After his release, Rama goes to work for Bangun’s empire, all the while searching for the evidence that will allow him to return to his family. As the plot significantly thickens, Godfather-esque disputes between organised crime syndicates erupt, fuelled from behind the scenes by the dapper and sinister Bejo (Alex Abbad).

Considering the small scale of Evans’ previous work, this is a massive production, full of action set-pieces, car chases, convoluted plots and stylish dialogue. Overall, it holds together nicely, with believable, if somewhat operatic, characters. The plot gets a little lost in its own cleverness at times, as allegiances change rapidly and new players appear late on. It is also a very separate piece from the original, as this script was written before The Raid and retrofitted to become a sequel. The pacing is also much more sophisticated, with the dramatic plot balancing the violent action. Those who enjoyed the carnage of the original will have their fill, but there is a slow building momentum to Berandal that culminates in a truly insane final act.

Evans’ casting is superb, with the actors (many of whom have little previous experience) rising to the challenge marvellously. Uwais is vulnerable and morally compromised as Rama delves deeper into the criminal world, while Putra is a revelation as the handsome and arrogant heir to a dangerous throne. The acting for the smaller parts is excellent as well: in particular the characters known as Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man ooze a terrifying, confident charisma as they set about with their weapons of choice.

The action in Berandal is utterly mind-blowing. It is impossible to describe the sheer brutality and invention to the choreography and the scale of the mayhem. Among the many stand-out moments are a muddy, bloody prison riot, a shoot-out in a porn studio, Hammer Girl on a train, and the ludicrous, eye-watering kitchen fight between Rama and a character known only as The Assassin. What sets this apart from much of the action in Hollywood films of today is Evans’ shooting and editing style. Accustomed to swift cuts to distract from the stuntmen and CGI, it is astonishing to witness the long takes that feature in his fight scenes. Of particular note is an incredible tracking shot that moves around the aforementioned riot, taking in every punch, kick and stab while still feeling completely frantic and unrehearsed.

Goodness knows how Hollywood will cope if Evans ever makes the transition to Western cinema. Possibly the best action director working today, his raw talent has the potential to be an absolute tour-de-force. Messy in places, with a bit too much plot for its own good, The Raid 2: Berandal is still the most ridiculously entertaining action film since, well, The Raid (just don’t take your mum!).

Peter Wood

Film Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (12A)

When news broke of the rebooting of Spider-Man only five years after Sam Raimi’s trilogy, cure there were many who took against it. The first Amazing film showed some potential but was hampered by plenty of flaws, to some extent validating the doubts of those naysayers, though it was a box-office success. Now, the sequel has some ground to make up, especially with Sony announcing not only two further Spider-Man films, but villain spin-offs. When studio involvement seems merely interested in exploiting the superhero bubble, such perceived cynicism has a habit of rubbing off on the fans. Happily, taken on its own terms, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a real step-up from the previous instalment, and an increasingly contrasting approach to the Webslinger’s story feels fresh compared with a tired origin story that could not quite differentiate itself from Raimi’s only a decade before.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is now firmly established as spider-man, balancing his vigilante duties with an education and spending time with his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), while troubled by his promise to her dying father to stay away. Meanwhile, lonely, obsessive Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an Oscorp employee has an unfortunate encounter with a tank full of electric eels (as you do), becoming Electro, a blue-tinted villain with more psychoses than a Freud convention. Further complications arise, as Peter’s old friend, Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan) returns to inherit has father’s company (that ubiquitous Oscorp again), only to discover that he is in the early stages of a genetic disease destined to destroy him.

Much like the first film, the human relationships are the lynchpin that holds the whole thing together. Peter and Gwen’s relationship is truly charming, with both actors harnessing the affection wrought of their real-life relationship. Similarly, there are touching moments between Peter and Aunt May (Sally Field), in particular when she discovers his search for answers about his parents. Director Mark Webb is clearly focussed on showing the human side of Spider-Man, as he was before, but this time neatly balancing the sentiment with the action. This film is also very funny at times: the action features plenty of wisecracking, and the joy Peter takes in his alter-ego is obvious. Unlike the second instalment of Raimi’s films, there is no ponderous debate about whether fighting crime is ruining his life, helping to maintain a boisterous pace.

One of the main criticisms of the previous film was that the action was disappointing, an issue that has clearly been addressed by the production team. While there are a couple of moments of dodgy CGI, generally there is a real thrill to be had watching Spidey swinging through New York and engaging his foes. There is a level of invention to the combat that keeps thing interesting throughout. It is also a pleasant contrast with last year’s Man of Steel to see a hero whose first impulse is to save innocent bystanders before tackling the villain.

The strength of this film is in its cast. Garfield continues to shine as the youthful crime-fighter, while Stone manages to be an independent woman without becoming an “Independent Woman”. DeHaan is particularly good as Harry, and the chemistry between the reuniting friends is very believable. The Max Dillon part is entertaining, if somewhat over-the-top, and Foxx seems to enjoy letting loose. Once Electro is firmly established, however, the character gets far less interesting, and his motivations rather clichéd.

The final act has an unexpected level of emotional resonance that works in its favour but generally feels a little anticlimactic. The final battle with Electro is decent, if unoriginal, but gets immediately forgotten as new drama unfolds. For the principle villain, this feels somewhat misguided. There is also an unnecessary epilogue, which seems primarily to exist as promotion for further instalments. Had the film ended ten minutes earlier, there would have been greater impact, and most likely, more anticipation to see what happens next.

Excellent acting, a compelling story, and entertaining action make The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a worthy entry into the canon, justifying the reboot through new and, at times, surprising (at least to non-comic-readers) turns. Webb’s more consistent focus has wrought a film of considerable strength that combines fun, thrills and emotional clout. If only Sony could learn to let each episode speak for itself and avoid insufferable sequel-baiting.

Peter Wood

Film Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (12A)

What happens when you combine the superhero genre with a conspiracy thriller? Is it fire and ice, look or strawberries and cream? That is the risk that Marvel Studios took with the latest addition to their massively successful Avengers universe. The first Captain America film was a decent origin story set in the Second World War, click hampered by an overdependence on montage storytelling and an old-fashioned aesthetic that at times bordered on cheesy. Here, cialis directors Joe and Anthony Russo have protagonist Steve Rodgers adjusting to modern life, while the audience is taken back to the 1980s, with The Winter Soldier evoking the spirit of the classic paranoid, post-Watergate thriller associated with the era of Redford and Hackman. Thankfully, grounding the heroic boy-scout Captain in a War on Terror context feels both prescient and solidly entertaining.

At a time when whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden are revealing the extents to which our privacy has been compromised, shadowy organisations like Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., that are supposedly here for our protection, often ring of a global police-state. It is this theme that plays through The Winter Soldier, as Rodgers (Chris Evans) must unravel a dark secret within the very foundations of the supposedly peace-keeping establishment for which he works. A stylish prologue involving a hijacked ship neatly sets up the kinds of operation involved, while also establishing a number of concerns about honour and honesty. As Rodgers questions the motivations of his allies Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), he is repeatedly thwarted by the mysterious Winter Soldier, an assassin who may be connected to Cap’s past. As expected from a thriller, there are car chases, action set-pieces, and surprise twists (some of which are far from surprising), which thrust the film along at a sterling pace, ending in a manner that bravely rewrites the politics and incentives of a number of characters in this universe.

Evans continues to add to his portrayal of Rodgers, as his natural naivety battles with the grim revelations abound. Captain America could easily be the least interesting Marvel hero, with his inherent nice-guy persona and powers that, while impressive, are not as visually stunning as Thor’s hammer tricks or Iron Man’s explosive armament. However, Evan’s earnest performance, as well as wry self-deprecation without self pity, make him both relatable and sympathetic. The physical side of his performance is superbly choreographed and marks the first Marvel film featuring more conventional action fighting, albeit with some impossible feats of strength, which helps to counter the possible fatigue caused by the current bombardment of invincible superhero films. Supporting characters may be somewhat underwritten, but moments of humanity contribute some needed depth. There are glimpses of vulnerability in Johansson’s super assassin, and the confident and confidential facade of Jackson’s Fury begins to slip away. However, while Alexander Pierce is central to much of the story, his character feels more like a convenient plot device than a fleshed out individual, despite the charisma of Redford’s portrayal.

The title of this film is something of a curiosity. Yes, the Winter Soldier makes a number of appearances, but features purely as a formidable obstacle to success rather than a key feature of the plot. Had this character been swapped with any other foe, events would take place almost identically, barring the end of the final act. Perhaps the filmmakers considered him an emblem of the conspiratorial nature of the film, but his appearances feel extraneous to the meat of the story. That said, when the title characters encounter one another the tension rises spectacularly. Captain America is such a formidable specimen that, when brawling with goons, the threat never feels real, whereas he has truly met his match in the Winter Soldier. The fight scenes are elegantly crafted and the emphasis on hand-to-hand combat makes for inventive and exciting action.

The Winter Soldier marks the boldest move away from the typical comic adaptation that the studio has made. It asks some difficult questions about contemporary issues and grounds the thrills in a pseudo-real-world context. As such, it is a shame that the final acts descends into the conventional model of large-things-smashing-into-each-other and a race-against-time climax. The current glut of superhero films still begs for an addition that bucks the trend, with an ending that need not be quiet, but perhaps feels smaller and more personal. Compared to a generic bombastic finale, the stakes might truly feel high. That isn’t to say that the ending is boring. In the moment there is plenty to entertain, while afterwards there may be the faint taste of disappointment. Plot wise, there are also a number of moments that seem like bold departures, only to be revealed as minor twists, lessening the overall threat that the first half of the film developed.

In general, The Winter Soldier is a hugely entertaining ride, with highlights including a Nick Fury car chase and unexpected connections to the first Captain America that in lesser hands may have felt forced. The story has major ramifications for the future of the Marvel universe, which is a brave move for a character that has previously been of lesser interest. However generic the ending may be, this has a shout at being the best individual Avenger film to date: a wonderful, straight faced companion to last year’s anarchic Iron Man 3.

Peter Wood

Film Review: Calvary (15)

Three years ago, treatment writer/director John Michael McDonagh and star Brendan Gleeson delivered The Guard, sale a phenomenal black comedy set in rural Ireland. Together again, following on from that is a more serious, but often equally hilarious, account of one man coming to terms with mortality. Pensive and quiet, Calvary feels significantly more personal, drawing on themes of abandonment, betrayal and loss.

Gleeson plays Father James, a Catholic priest who receives a death threat while hearing confession. This is a terrific opening sequence: a single shot focussed on Gleeson as he tries to make sense of the situation. He is to be killed for the sins of the Church that allowed another priest to rape the aggrieved as a child. James is a good man, a fact recognised by his aggressor, as ‘there’s no sense in killing a bad priest, but killing a good one? That’d be a shock.’ During the week’s notice allowed him, James attempts to go about his duties in a small community that despises the institution to which he belongs, burdened by the knowledge (unlike the audience) of his would-be killer’s identity. He came to the cloth late in life as a widower, and is visited by his troubled daughter, whose own self-inflicted brushes with death are cause for further concern.

All of this sounds rather bleak and it is testament to the superb script and faultless pacing that such serious fare balances delicately with comic elements. There are few outright jokes in Calvary, with laughs formed more by human situations with some subtle ludicrousness or irony. McDonagh’s dialogue combines naturalism with some fantastic monologues and revealing illustrations of character. The residents of James’ parish are almost uniformly hostile to his gentle determination to perform his clerical responsibilities, as an inherent anger at what they perceive as moral bankruptcy within Catholicism is siphoned through man who has no choice but to listen. Of particular note are Chris O’Dowd’s Simon, a butcher relieved by his wife’s infidelity and Aiden Gillen’s atheist coroner, whose vicious taunts culminate in a cruel medical anecdote. Kelly Reilly also shines as the troubled daughter, an understated performance full of simmering depression that manifests in bursts of aggression.

Even considering the outstanding supporting cast, this is truly Gleeson’s film. A stalwart of the British film industry, this may well be his finest moment. He shambles through the film, his natural warm heart tempered by a constant barrage of spite, pushed to the limits and, occasionally, beyond. It is a subtle and reserved performance, revealing of character in both the quieter moments and those when his magnanimity is truly tested. The apathy of James towards his impending doom is made all the more fascinating through Gleeson’s candid portrayal.

Despite the mysterious set-up, it is easy to get caught up in the drama and forget to ponder who the antagonist might be. There are certainly a great many suspects but this is not a detective film. The final climax, so difficult to get right, is both riveting and revealing, without compromise or agenda. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect pairing than McDonagh and Gleeson; Calvary is the best of the year so far and any future collaborations will be some of the most highly anticipated in British cinema.

Peter Wood

Film Review: Muppets Most Wanted (U)

There are high expectations for this latest Muppets film, remedy after the 2011 film successfully and charmingly brought the comedy troupe back into the public imagination. What held that film together so well, despite the madcap nature of Muppet adventures, was a lot of heart that made us feel for the felt. Muppets Most Wanted has been publicised as more of an all-out comedy, lampooning the heist genre and sending Kermit and co. on a European tour. While this is not an inherently bad decision, excellent comedy requires a solid structure on which to rest, and the foundations of this film are decidedly wobbly.

The story begins directly after the end of the previous film, with the Muppets wondering what to do now that they are reunited. Enter Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), a shady individual claiming to be a celebrity agent, who persuades them to go on tour despite Kermit’s reservations. As they embark on their journey, Kermit is replaced by the dastardly Constantine, the world’s most dangerous thief, who also happens to be a dead-ringer for our favourite frog. As Kermit is sent to a Siberian gulag (overseen by Tina Fey’s guard), Constantine uses the Muppets as cover to steal from Europe’s museums, with his final goal being the British Crown Jewels. We also meet Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell), a French Interpol agent who teams up with Sam the American Eagle to investigate the crime spree.

As expected, there are plenty of songs to power the plot along, including ‘We’re Doing a Sequel’, which sends up Hollywood’s franchising of every successful film, and a charming duet between Kermit and Piggy. While most of the songs are full of composer Bret McKenzie’s trademark tongue-in-cheek charm, there are a couple of missteps, such as ‘I’m Number One’, sung by Constantine and Badguy, and Fey’s ‘Big House’ song. This highlights one of the main weaknesses of the film: the human stars. Gervais’ performance is utterly one-note, while Fey puts in more effort but feels rather forced. A welcome exception is Burrell who, along with Sam, steals the show with his stereotypical Frenchman, while their odd-couple relationship is the most sharply written element of the film.

The main issue is that Muppets Most Wanted is extraordinarily messy. The main plot means that the Muppets themselves are given virtually no motivation, merely serving as a device for the Constantine story, while Kermit feels rather sidelined. Even the comedy occasionally seems underdeveloped, with this Muppets fan sometimes laughing out of loyalty rather than genuine mirth. That said, there are plenty of funny moments, just not enough to garner the belly-laughs associated with the best of the Muppets’ work. The script gives the distinct impression of an early draft that needs a solid rewrite: there is lots of potential never quite tapped.

Muppets Most Wanted is likely to somewhat disappoint fans, partially due to high expectations after the benchmark of the previous instalment. The silliness and fast pace might entertain children more (though the youngest might find the two frogs confusing), but the joy of Muppet antics has always been a sly wink to those that never truly grew up. By no means terrible, we have, nevertheless, come to expect more.

Peter Wood

Film Review: Noah (12A)

The biblical epic feels like a dated genre, pharmacy conjuring images of Charlton Heston in sandals and bright Technicolor images of Middle-Eastern desert lands. There is the hero who selflessly fights for the downtrodden: a saviour of the masses. Then there is Noah. Here we have a character that could legitimately be regarded by those same masses as a murderer and fanatic. This is no children’s tale! Thankfully, viagra 100mg director Darren Aronofsky does not hold back, vcialis 40mg creating one of the most challenging, troubling, and gripping epics to date.

As you probably know, Noah is the tale of the just man (Russell Crowe) in a corrupt world, who receives a vision from the Creator (interestingly, the word ‘God’ is never used) telling him of the imminent floods sent down to cleanse the planet of sin. He is tasked to build an Ark in which to house two of every animal to start afresh in a new Eden, free from the rot of original sin. The Old-Testament story is extremely concise, so Aronofsky and writing partner Ari Handel have fleshed out the plot to include a vicious king called Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), who is determined that the time of men is not over and, most divisively, fallen angels that aid Noah in his quest. Joining Noah for custodial duties are his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), with three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Leo McHugh Carroll), and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson).

The character of Noah is incredibly complex. He is a caring father willing to commit the most extreme actions in the name of God, which could be compared to the motives of terrorists in the modern world. Noah is never presented as a hero, with his actions at a number of points defining him more as villain. This is masterfully portrayed by Crowe, with an intensity few actors can achieve. As his decisions take him inevitably down darker paths, his resolve and growing trauma are palpable. Tempering Noah’s hardness is Connelly’s increasingly fraught wife, who dearly wishes to believe in her husband but is tested beyond the limits. As a representation of Noah’s discarded humanity Connelly is fantastic, never tipping the scales into melodrama. Watson is the real surprise of the film, showing that she has matured beyond the single defining role of her youth. Hermione seems long gone when watching Ila’s heart-wrenching third-act development.

While Noah is impressively epic, it is perhaps most effective as a claustrophobic drama while the Ark floats across endless seas. The family unit is split for a number of reasons, as the patriarch of the last humans on Earth is challenged from all angles. This section features the most interesting character developments and is perhaps over too quickly. In comparison, the first act seems a little overlong. There is much to set up, since this story resonates back to Adam and Eve, but we reside too long in a desolate primordial land before the main story begins. Certain elements of the film have a ‘just go with it’ sense, with the fallen angels a key example. Trapped within stone, these crippled giants resemble Harryhausen stop-motion monsters and are initially very jarring. It is difficult to imagine that they were added for anything more than convenience, as they help to build the Ark and fight the human hordes. Without this inclusion, perhaps this central set-piece would have been impossible.

There are a number of directorial flourishes throughout the film. A time-lapse segment, from the birth of the universe, to the foundation of Earth, to the evolution of Man, is both visually and creatively breathtaking. It is also a bold step to acknowledge both intelligent design and Darwinian Theory as a combined entity. There is a strong ecological message that pervades the film: the excesses of man include the heedless squandering of natural resources, while the descendents of Cain appear as devilish Kingdom-Brunels, with industry as the peak of human achievement. It is strengths such as these, however, that reveal the weaker moments. Aronofsky could never be accused of mere lip-service to any element of his films, but there is a sense that this passion project is one of individual visions, rather than a cohesive singularity. The tonal shifts present through Noah are testament to this, as multiple genres are cited (family drama, war and fantasy, to name a few).

Overall, the flaws that are present in Noah are mostly considered after the event. During the film it is difficult not to be swept away by the sheer creative scale of Aronofsky’s world and the intense psychological drama. The textual liberties and eco-friendly message are sure to be divisive, but this epic blockbuster remains thought-provoking and emotionally searing, beautiful and dreadful.

Peter Wood

Film Review: Starred Up (18)

Eric Love, story a rough young criminal, cialis is escorted off a van and into the prison that is to be his home for a very long time. The real world is left at the door. The next time he sees outside it will be a privilege. Eric Love is a thug, sickness and he belongs in that prison. Easy to say for somebody on the outside, isn’t it? On the inside, there’s a whole other story that takes place after they close the bars. 

Freshly transferred from a criminal youth facility to an adult prison, Eric (Jack O’Connell) wastes no time in causing havoc for the guards and other inmates alike. Before even unpacking his few belongings, he makes himself a weapon and soon after renders an inmate unconscious. He is crude, violent, and unbelievably aggressive. Anything can set him off. But he soon becomes wise to the fact that he is living amongst many other ticking time bombs, and his real problems start when he crosses paths with another inmate, a familiar face; his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). Neville is torn between wanting the best for Eric and leading him down the same bad paths that he has ventured. But when Eric starts attending a therapy session, referred to simply as ‘group’, Neville shows himself to be the hostile, violent brute that Eric runs the risk of turning into. Eric must choose between seeking help and bettering himself, or giving in to his animalistic aggression, which is sure to add more years to his already long sentence.

A painfully gritty portrayal of prison politics, Starred Up unashamedly questions Britain’s prison system. Teaming with corruption, the prison sees Eric as just another thug for them to lock in a cell and take matters into their own hands if he steps too far out of line. Hope manifests in the form of social worker Oliver (Rupert Friend), who thinks not enough is being done to guide the inmates on the right path and believes he can reach Eric as long as they allow him to attend ‘group’.  But everyone on the inside knows that there is no easy way out, and with a new enemy around every corner, it is every man for himself.

Director David Mackenzie is consistent in cornering in on his audience and including them in the action, with carefully placed moments of tension and violence confined in small, restrictive spaces. Adding to an increasing sense of claustrophobia, Jack O’Connell’s performance certainly ensures that being in such close quarters with a convict as abrasive as Eric Love is not an easy experience. This film is an intensive and brutally realistic look at extreme cases of prison life, and the sense of dedication radiates from O’Connell’s intense onscreen presence. Admittedly not an original role choice for the Harry Brown actor, the role of Eric Love has revealed O’Connell’s talent for taking on difficult characters and smothering them with an inexplicable grit and authenticity. With palpable tension in O’Connell’s performances with Mendelsohn, who is terrifyingly convincing and with unavoidable presence, the end result is nothing short of excellent.
Supported by a fantastic and almost unrecognizable Rupert Friend, who takes the opportunity to show his range in a genre far from his period-drama roots, the cast inject the gritty and simplistic story, narrative and style with the hard-hitting energy that makes this film such an intense but brilliant experience, and in my opinion O’Connell is making himself a promising and well-deserved future in film. Although it is thought-provoking and intelligent, Starred Up is by no means an easy watch, nor is it for every taste. But it is British grit at its best. And if ‘starred up’ means you’re a leader, then this film may hold a title in British drama for quite a while.

Lara Shippen

Film Review: Starred Up (18)

Eric Love, cialis a rough young criminal, online is escorted off a van and into the prison that is to be his home for a very long time. The real world is left at the door. The next time he sees outside it will be a privilege. Eric Love is a thug, and he belongs in that prison. Easy to say for somebody on the outside, isn’t it? On the inside, there’s a whole other story that takes place after they close the bars. 

Freshly transferred from a criminal youth facility to an adult prison, Eric (Jack O’Connell) wastes no time in causing havoc for the guards and other inmates alike. Before even unpacking his few belongings, he makes himself a weapon and soon after renders an inmate unconscious. He is crude, violent, and unbelievably aggressive. Anything can set him off. But he soon becomes wise to the fact that he is living amongst many other ticking time bombs, and his real problems start when he crosses paths with another inmate, a familiar face; his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). Neville is torn between wanting the best for Eric and leading him down the same bad paths that he has ventured. But when Eric starts attending a therapy session, referred to simply as ‘group’, Neville shows himself to be the hostile, violent brute that Eric runs the risk of turning into. Eric must choose between seeking help and bettering himself, or giving in to his animalistic aggression, which is sure to add more years to his already long sentence.

A painfully gritty portrayal of prison politics, Starred Up unashamedly questions Britain’s prison system. Teaming with corruption, the prison sees Eric as just another thug for them to lock in a cell and take matters into their own hands if he steps too far out of line. Hope manifests in the form of social worker Oliver (Rupert Friend), who thinks not enough is being done to guide the inmates on the right path and believes he can reach Eric as long as they allow him to attend ‘group’.  But everyone on the inside knows that there is no easy way out, and with a new enemy around every corner, it is every man for himself.

Director David Mackenzie is consistent in cornering in on his audience and including them in the action, with carefully placed moments of tension and violence confined in small, restrictive spaces. Adding to an increasing sense of claustrophobia, Jack O’Connell’s performance certainly ensures that being in such close quarters with a convict as abrasive as Eric Love is not an easy experience. This film is an intensive and brutally realistic look at extreme cases of prison life, and the sense of dedication radiates from O’Connell’s intense onscreen presence. Admittedly not an original role choice for the Harry Brown actor, the role of Eric Love has revealed O’Connell’s talent for taking on difficult characters and smothering them with an inexplicable grit and authenticity. With palpable tension in O’Connell’s performances with Mendelsohn, who is terrifyingly convincing and with unavoidable presence, the end result is nothing short of excellent.
Supported by a fantastic and almost unrecognizable Rupert Friend, who takes the opportunity to show his range in a genre far from his period-drama roots, the cast inject the gritty and simplistic story, narrative and style with the hard-hitting energy that makes this film such an intense but brilliant experience, and in my opinion O’Connell is making himself a promising and well-deserved future in film. Although it is thought-provoking and intelligent, Starred Up is by no means an easy watch, nor is it for every taste. But it is British grit at its best. And if ‘starred up’ means you’re a leader, then this film may hold a title in British drama for quite a while.

Lara Shippen