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Neds (2011, UK)

04/03/2011

Director: Peter Mullan   Starring: Connor McCarron, Peter Mullan

I’m not long in the door from seeing Neds. I’ve poured myself a little stiff drink. I need it. It’s that kind of film. I mean this in the best possible way. Rarely does a film plunge a grimy hand into your gizzards and squeeze like this. Here I sit, almost an hour after the end credits started to roll, and I can still feel it deep in my gut. This leaves me with a dilemma. How do I adequately impart the power and glory of Peter Mullan’s masterwork using only words?

Plotwise it is reasonably straightforward. We meet John McGill (McCarron), a brilliant student, full of potential who has the unfortunate handicap of an older brother up to his neck in gang culture and an alcoholic and abusive father (a particularly riling, despicable turn from Mullan). When he moves up to the big school, rather than being advantaged by his intellect it marks him out as different from the pack. Before long he falls in with a bad crowd and becomes consumed by the thrills and spills of youth gang culture. It’s all a little bit downhill for him from there.

Set in the seventies (“It wasn’t like this in my day”, really?) it’s a grim snapshot of working class life on the housing estates of Glasgow. Violence, abuse, prejudice, ignorance, frustration and desperation are rife. You can have all the aspirations you want but in an education system that  employs violence as a punishment and does little to nurture intelligence in its students it’s little wonder that even promising youngsters like John end up on the wrong path.

Mullan handles the subject frankly, refraining from judgement, preferring instead to plainly illustrate the circumstances under which a bright, promising, polite young boy can end up deeply involved in violence and criminality. It’s a tense experience, turning the Daily Mail cliches on their head and undermining the assumptions we all make about the kind of people who involve themselves in this kind of lifestyle. For the first hour or so the inter-gang scrapping and cajoling actually seems rather fun (the occasional stabbing or slashing notwithstanding), boys being boisterous boys and few people being genuinely seriously hurt. Granted there are serious injuries, but not generated by malice, instead being the result of misplaced attempts at thrill seeking and insecure posturing. There is a moment where the film turns on you though, rewarding you for your complicity and laughter at the lads “shennanigans”. It sticks a knife in you, gives it a twist and leaves it there for the rest of the film.

What has surprised me the most is that while the film stimulates a broad range of emotions I felt very little anger at what was going on, certainly far less than I expected to. Mullan’s performance as John’s alcoholic father was an exception, as was the way in which the school system attempted to deal with John, but generally I was moved more to sadness and sorrow than rage and hatred. It really isn’t often that a film can bring me to the verge of tears and rarer still that the effect can last for so long afterwards.

It would do a tremendous injustice to fail to mention the extraordinary cast of amazingly talented young actors that populate the film. I’m not sure where and how they were found but they all seem like seasoned professionals in front of the camera and never waver in their convincing portrayal of Glasgow’s teenage gangs. Foul mouthed, brimming with banter and bluster they are simultaneously charming and terrifying, dishing out cheek one minute and then threatening (and occasionally doing) unspeakable things to one another the next. This is one of the film’s great strengths, that among it all, the grim hopelessness and violence there is still warm humour to be found, a concept illustrated beautifully by Gary Lewis’ minor but marvellous turn as a mischievous yet fearsome school master.

Reminiscent in some ways to Shane Meadows’ This Is England (both the film and the TV show) Neds stops short of preaching what should and could be done to alleviate the problems it presents. It doesn’t really need to. It’s stark portrayal of the causal effects of violence and abuse, of the damage done by eroding opportunity and cultivating desperation speaks for itself. It has a weight and power that I will be feeling for some time to come and despite it’s seventies setting is as relevant and important when it comes to life in this decade as it is to any other. It truly is magnificent.

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