This being London, I found myself having two conversations about the director of the film, David Mackenzie, in a single day. The first, within the hallowed portals of Working Title’s London office, discussed the way he has suddenly become hot property, with Universal flying him out to LA in order to throw projects at him. The second was with someone who has known him, via his brother, for many years. Describing how his first film was shot in Spain and was supposed to have Bardem, before Bardem became famous, but didn't. (I can find no trace of this film in IMDB). In between the two points in Mackenzie’s life related there are a host of other films he has made, including his latest, and most apparently successful, Starred Up.
I say apparently because I’ve never seen another film of his. There have been, one notes, at least 8. In short, although Mackenzie is still relatively young, Starred Up is not the work of wunderkind. It’s the offering of a director who has been around the block and learned the ropes. Something which is evident in the way he pulls off what might have been a hackneyed prison tale and turns into a visceral, roller coaster journey. Above all, this is a film which is well-paced. For all that the lead, O’Connell, delivers a bravura performance, one can’t help thinking that if the editing and the camerawork weren’t in synch with this performance, his acting would appear overblown, and the full extent of the film’s melodramatic premise would reveal itself. This is not the greatest cinema script ever written: the ending feels contrived and the role of the the autobiographical figure, Ol, is underdeveloped. There’s no doubt there’s another film to be made which explores the writer, Jonathan Asser’s methodology in greater depth, where Starred Up only skates over the surface. (This in a week when we learn that books are to be banned in prison.) However, although under-developed, the film employs the Ol scenes to great effect. We are in the room with the prisoners as they grapple with and confront their fear of being ridiculous or losing status, a fear which can easily lead to violence in a testosterone fuelled society. These scenes are brilliantly composed and help to lend the film the sense of visceral energy it requires to convince us that this is what prison is really like. The whole place is a throbbing vein of overheated masculinity, embodied in O’Connell’s splendidly narcissistic performance. No-one can relax in this world and the assured direction means that the audience cannot either.
Where this could become frenetic in the hands of a less assured director, in Starred Up it feels like a convincing depiction of prison life. The highly regulated tone comes from the way in which the direction harmonises the various elements of the filmmaking process, from sound-design to acting, from editing to the muted grade. The film has the hallmark of someone at the helm who knows what they’re doing, reminding us that directors don’t fall out of trees, they are formed.