By Myriam Ghattas
Telling a poignant and gritty tale of a boy’s downward spiral to hell, Peter Mullan makes no concessions as he writes and directs “Neds” (2010) revisiting his native Scotland in his third feature.
In his previous films, Mullan exhibited a mastery of entrapment exploration, as seen in “The Magdalene Sisters” (2002) and “Orphans” (1998), with barriers visible or invisible. Beyond the individual and the religious, the latest film takes on a different dimension: the societal.
Neds stands for Non-Educated Delinquents making up the teen gangs that wreak havoc in the poorer neighborhoods of the outskirts of Glasgow. Set in the 70s, with autobiographical elements, Mullan’s film follows John McGill (Conor McCarron), a clever boy at the top of his class who seems bound for a bright future given his self-discipline and love of learning.
McGill’s path to success is challenged by obstacles that seem out of his control: an abusive drunk of a father (Peter Mullan); and an older brother, Benny (Joe Szula) who is a school drop-out and gang leader and whose clout in the streets supplies John with both unrequited enmity as well as much needed protection among other teens in the hood.
To complete the picture, John is at odds with the prejudiced low expectations festering his life from people around him including those of his teachers, of his family and of the parents of his more well-to-do classmates. Faced with circumstances much bigger than him, he allows himself to get pulled into the “ned” lifestyle as he seeks acknowledgment while the illusion of power giving him a false sense of control and security.
A telling sign of Mullan’s vision for his film is the manner used in his search for actors. Thus it is no mere coincidence that McCarron, who delivers an outstanding performance as the main character, had been cast in the film after responding to a casting call in the local newspaper. Nor should it come as a surprise that neither McCarron nor the majority of his other classmates had appeared in any movies worth mentioning or that they were basically non-actors.
The result of this gamble is a visceral, raw film free of any pretense.
Violence being a predominant feature in “Neds,” Mullan explains that it was crucial for him to choreograph fight scenes in a way that kept them grounded and believable.
A small yet heartbreaking presence in the film is that of John’s younger sister, Elizabeth (Mhairi Anderson) who stays silent in the face of all the violence surrounding her, unable to either escape it or counter it. Another equally tragic figure is the father, Mr. McGill himself, who, in one small utterance, brings home all the despair that the characters in the story live with day in and day out. With the use of such devices, Mullan offers an uncompromising look into the lives of this familial nucleus at the heart of society. The safety of black and white stereotypes is dismissed. Yet in this very unsafe picture which he paints, or probably because of it, he manages to infuse his story with a hopeful undertone without falling into some generic or unlikely happy resolution.
Mullan speaks of Neds as a “personal” movie. Indeed, the Scotland of his youth was gang-infested as it is portrayed in the film. It remains so several decades later into the present as McCarron will testify in an interview. Both filmmaker and actor have been directly or indirectly involved with such gangs as they’ve lived and grown among them. Mullan sees it as a real problem and attributes this phenomenon to an extension of the tribal culture of Celtic people.
The movie’s lot is punctuated with a soundtrack made up of a few pop hits from the 70’s such as The New Seekers’ “You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me,” simultaneously grounding the narrative more deeply into its native era while impregnating the lyrics of those familiar songs with a whole new meaning, especially when used during high-impact scenes of violence.
It would be too easy to say that Mullan merely condemns the “neds” and their lifestyle. What makes the movie and raises the stakes is precisely the filmmaker’s ability to show the invigorating draw of being assimilated into such groups thereby gaining power in the streets that the unincorporated individual lacks. McGill’s choices are not cut out for him and he must counter the consequences either which way he goes. McCarron’s delivery of the character carries all these various states of mind and being with a spontaneity and subtlety that are nothing less than contagious taking the spectator on a rollercoaster ride of emotions.
Neds is a masterpiece of authenticity and heart, and the icing on the cake: a stunning ending.
“Neds” is showing as part of the fourth Panorama for the European Film on Nov. 25 at Galaxy cinema and Nov. 26 and Nov. 27 at Stars cinema.