When I heard that Neds was a serious contender against the likes of Black Swan, I wasn’t convinced. I am now.
Not in terms of worldwide recognition and awards, of course, where Black Swan looks set to clean up at most of this year’s ceremonies. No, but more simply in terms of what people should be watching at the cinema this week, Neds could be a winner. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen the ‘Swan, and it absolutely lives up to the hype – but at the same time it does seem to be casting a rather unfortunate shadow over the likes of the rather splendid Neds.
Peter Mullan does an outstanding job of directing this tale of Non-Educated Delinquents in 1970s Glasgow – although, really, the events of this film could take place in any modern working-class suburbia, which probably the point.
Unknown Glaswegian actor Conor McCarron – who for now, incidentally, continues to study thermal insulation at college – is brilliantly believable as the teenage John McGill, a young man who comes to personify the phrase, ‘victim of circumstance’.
Neds is a coming-of-age film, but not quite in the way you might expect. Teenage boys are largely preoccupied with asserting their place within the gang culture which consumes their lives – while their female counterparts are left twirling their hair and chewing gum in the background.
Far from appearing sexist, however, focussing on the character of John McGill draws the entire audience in. He is set him apart from his peers by his ability to look at his situation from much the same standpoint as the audience. His brother is a notorious gang member and, while John is exceptionally bright, he is forced to live in fear of local bullies as well as his abusive and alcoholic father (played by Mullan himself), until he one day achieves the freedom awarded by a place at university.
The film starts with John being acutely aware of his need to escape – a belief which is reinforced by rare visits from his glamorous Aunt Beth (Marianna Palka), who occasionally drops in with tales of her new life in America.
As he becomes a teenager, John’s ambition, enthusiasm and enthusiasm get lost, and it is heart-breaking to watch his steady transformation into the thug he was determined never to become. A brief flirtation with the world of the middle-classes, followed by a harsh rejection, only propels him further towards a life of violence which is often difficult to watch. You can’t fault the execution of this transition: one minute McGill is listening to T.Rex‘s 20th Century Boy on a record player whilst having ‘afternoon biscuits and juice’ – the next it is the soundtrack for a heart-thumping encounter between menacing gang members on streets of Glasgow.
The film draws inevitable parallels with Shane Meadows’ This Is England, both in subject matter and delivery. There are certainly enough eccentric teachers and deadpan humour, first half, to mean that it’s not half as bleak as you might expect. In one scene, McGill’s efforts to stay out of trouble land him in an football team, in which the oddball players are registered not by their names, but by their medical condition. Only the physically unfit can avoid joining a gang.
This film is also undoubtedly influenced by the gritty realism found in films from the likes of Ken Loach, who, in fact, helped to kick start Mullan’s acting career back in the 1990s. However, Neds is set apart by an occasional surreal flourish – sometimes wonderfully (as is the case with a dream-like wander through a lion’s enclosure) and occasionally less successfully (as with a hallucinatory meeting with a violent incarnation of Christ). Still, the tragedies of class conflict remain at the raw heart of Neds, and its portrayal of rage-filled and directionless rebellion is flawless and unsettling throughout.