Eric (Jack O'Connell) is a troubled and explosively violent teenager who has just been transferred to an adult prison. There he comes across his absentee dad Neville (Ben Mendelsohn).

 

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SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Listening to an NPR interview recently with Piper Kerman, whose memoir of her year spent in a US federal prison was turned into the superb Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, she noted that what sustained you inside – all that sustained you, often – were the friendships you made. To do time alone, she said, would be “incredibly, unimaginably lonely. And dangerous.”

The latest feature from Scottish director David Mackenzie would seem to offer a proof to this thesis. Nineteen-year-old Eric arrives at an unnamed prison to begin what appears to be a lengthy sentence. We never get a clear sense of what crime(s) he’s committed; we never learn the length of his term, or even the name of the gaol. For the purposes of the story – and the broader point the film is trying to make, about the dehumanising effects of incarceration upon inmates and staff alike – these details are unnecessary.
 
What is clear, is that Eric is no stranger to life behind bars – his first acts, upon being left alone in his cell, are not only ingenious but attest to years of experience inside – and that he has a personal reason for wanting to remain inside: his father, Neville, is also at the facility, 14 years into a life sentence with no parole in sight. For better or worse, his sentence allows a kind of family life Eric has never known. Indeed, with its vaguely Oedipal father-son dynamic, a source of squirming embarrassment for both men, the entire film seems to depart from Ray Winstone’s famous line (‘WHO’S THE DADDY?’) from Alan Clarke’s 1979 classic Scum, the urtext of British prison movies.
 
The newcomer, however, has no intention of fitting in – and no hope of doing so even if he wanted to. Eric is ultimately a prisoner of himself, a slave to his own worst impulses; he lashes out reflexively and violently at anyone within range. (‘Starred up,’ we learn, refers to a process in which especially dangerous and unpredictable juvenile offenders are advanced to adult facilities before their time. Like an unusually gifted high school student being fast-tracked to university.) He’s been on ‘the wing’ for only a few hours before he’s beaten another inmate almost to death, simply for refusing to lend him a cigarette lighter, and engineered a brutal stand-off against the guards. During which, he comes to the attention of a counsellor, Oliver – as uneasy with the outside world as any of the men he works with. Who sees in the younger man, however improbably, the possibility of rehabilitation…
 
As Eric, Jack O’Connell is electrifying. He first came to attention in the British TV drama Skins, but between this and his role in Jann Demange’s ’71, a hit at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, he’s on his way to a remarkable film career. He’s handsome and well-built, heartthrob material, but there’s a wary intelligence in his stare and a fundamental ambiguity to his performance. You never know what he’s thinking exactly, even as you watch him reading a scene, noting and measuring the various behaviours that surround him; his eyes, alert, sceptical, miss nothing. And he turns this to the advantage of his character. Is Eric looking to bond with the father he barely knew – or to kill him? Does he even know himself?
 
Neville, meanwhile, is played by Ben Mendelsohn, who’s typically excellent here. (He even anchored Ryan Gosling’s otherwise ludicrous Lost River, at Cannes.) As he’s aged, his voice has deepened slightly and become hoarser, and a rugged handsomeness has replaced the occasional gawkiness he showed in youth. He’s an actor’s actor – and you only need mention his name to his peers to see the awe in which they hold him – but also a genuine star, as close as Australian cinema comes to a Bogart of its own. And like that legend, he’s absolutely magnetic onscreen; you can’t take your eyes off him for an instant, even as you admire the fine calibration of his technique.
 
Mackenzie’s direction, meanwhile, is unshowy and assured (apart from anything else, he’s phenomenally good with actors), and the script is by one Jonathan Asser, who reportedly worked as a prison counsellor himself. As such, it’s predictably strong on detail (the opening sequence, following Eric’s induction into the gaol, is a concise snapshot of pointless institutional cruelty), but Asser also knows how to craft a scene. A session among Oliver’s therapy group – as the men turn against each other, reacting to imagined slights and refusing, for the sake of pride, to back down – escalates rapidly and well; there’s a convincing sense of threat, with each man’s response saying much about their particular character, without need for clumsy backstory or exposition. And while the narrative might seem, midway through, to be heading toward the kind of tidy redemption-tale for which Oliver hopes, things snap back nicely in that final act, to reveal the underlying hopelessness of the situation, the dismal lack of options for all concerned, as Eric finds his essential nature – his heredity – impossible to outrun.
 
Given that it’s shot on location, at a real prison – in Belfast, apparently – it’s hard to fault the production design. The sound mix, though, is occasionally murky, rendering some of the dialogue indistinct; coupled with the British regional accents, and heavy use of slang (of both Yardie and Lag varieties), some viewers might find it hard to keep up. Yet I can’t help but think this is the point. We’re on the outside, after all.

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