Neds, directed by Peter Mullan

This tale of disaffected youth trades in traditional rhetorical flourishes but succeeds in avoiding easy answers.

Submitted by Tom Jennings on June 17, 2011

A Neducation. Film review – Tom Jennings
Film and television actor and director Peter Mullan’s is an interesting exception to stereotypical luvvie trajectories, traversing teenage gang membership and Southside pub bouncing before travelling across Glasgow to university after his violent alcoholic father’s death. His career commenced in a hotbed of radical Scottish drama with the 7:84 and Wildcat Theatre companies, and even recent Hollywood incursions (with Harry Potter and Spielberg) have scarcely softened outspoken left-wing views – minor celebrity status regularly mobilised in campaigns against the Immigration Service HQ in 2005 over dawn-raid deportations and boycottting the BBC for not screening the Disaster Action Committee’s 2009 Gaza charity appeal. Public acclaim first accrued as a petty criminal addict struggling to recover in Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe (1998), dubbed Best Actor at the Camnes Film Festival, and directorial respect for cinematic realism shone through The Magdalene Sisters’ (2002) denunciation of Irish Catholic institutional tyranny. His previous project, however, the monumental comic nightmare Orphans (1998), deconstructed Thatcher’s ‘There is no such thing as society’ – cod-philosophical fait accompli disguising callous policy – with a parallel critique of reductive naturalistic victimisation and pessimism regarding lower-class potential. Mullan’s new film, Neds, attempts a comparably ambitious – if less hysterical – realignment of generic conventions in tackling profound thematics with personal resonance.
The title signifies the ancient, ubiquitous Scots mythological equivalent of ‘chavs’ – wastrel sink estate denizens as idealised repositories of respectable disgust – popular media images of whom are familiar from the BBC sitcom Rab C. Nesbitt (in which Mullan guest-appeared). A latterday military designation is the acronym ‘Non-educated delinquents,’ rendering cannon-fodder recruits vicious cretins – but with identifiable instrumental utility for official purposes, thus linking the ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ under capitalism with the disciplinary power of cultural governance. Deploying these twin metaphors to illuminating effect, the film refutes contemporary moral panics about grievous youthful bodily harm via relocation to the school and neighbourhood milieux of its writer-director’s own rites and wrongs of passage. So a soundtrack of glamrock and protopunk replaces gangsta rap or grime, with mundane kitchen knives instead of Glocks wielded by teenagers sporting early 1970s sartorial street splendour rather than hoodies. Otherwise any urban era menaced by unruly youth comes to mind – though this was before neoliberal austerity decisively eroded postwar Social Contracts, abolished full employment, and essentialised underclass impoverishment; state education still supposedly supporting meritocratic mobility. Yet the clichéd narrative arcs, sticky ends and redemptive resolutions of decades of coming-of-age movies, while inevitably invoked, are scrupulously avoided.
The painful progress of John McGill – shy mummy’s boy from a dysfunctional proletarian home – includes initial academic promise encountering indifferent, increasingly forceful prejudice from peers and elders alike as primary school is left behind. Frustrated sociality finds provisional acceptance in the local Young Car-Ds, courtesy of his older brother’s hardman renown – the siblings serving contrasting apprenticeships in the dynamics of domestic violence. This heritage helped hone John’s intuitive nous, hitherto channelled into studiously avoiding conflict’s depressingly predictable outcomes. Now comprehensively disillusioned just when adolesecence bites, awkward intelligence lends formidable advantages over lads lacking the dubious benefits of such additional perspective. But subsequent wholehearted descent into murderous teenage kicks outflanks the comfort zones of both tribal and family hierarchies. Devilish bravado strikes fear into rival gangs, whereas the accompanying individualist unpredictablility ensures exclusion from his own. No longer brooking bullying, John beats his dad up – becoming outcast from kin as well as kith. Collective psychopathology morphing into psychotic collapse, losing hope, sleeping rough and sniffing glue escalate hallucinatory persecution, where even a fantasied Christ attacks him. In the nick of time he returns home, refusing the easiest option of putting his pater out of everyone’s misery – later being readmitted to a Special Needs class along with his first, brain-damaged, victim, who he takes the trouble to protect.
This film is perhaps the most movingly unsentimental I’ve seen in delineating the tragedies of working-class disaffection. Cinematography and visual design unobstrusively charge an uncannily powerful atmosphere, reflecting the recognisable universality of alienation in teenage’s inevitably misfitting passage. More outlandish surreal sequences are anticipated with subtle, pitch-perfect expressionism highlighting boredom, misery and small pleasures in the environment’s familiar stramgeness. Acting styles similarly match, with heightened naturalism among the professional adult cast counterposing emotional realism and improvised dialogue in amateur youngsters, who view grown-ups as inherently alien anyway. Authenticity is consistently reinforced by dark sharp Glaswegian humour intensifying and lightening pivotal moments, emphasising disjunctions between mature conformity and rebellious baulking at arbitrary constraints. Such sensitively convincing evocations contextualise meticulous fight scene choreography, where Neds nods to 1970s cinema like Peckinpah and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange as well as the uncompromising social-realism of Alan Clarke and Ken Loach. These risky strategies integrate, with no hint of romantic seduction or safe distantiation via nostalgic fetishisation or shirking their terrible angry poignancy, John’s various Catch-22s – which newcomer Conor McCarron’s towering turn captures magnificently.
The story stands head and shoulders above its genre – including recent honourable efforts by such as Shane Meadows – depicting damaging deviance as sympathetically intelligible without glamourisation or demonisation and, even more unusually, soliciting neither heroic identification nor grotesque differentiation. However, its protagonist is still an all-round outsider, disallowing attention to crucial ambivalent nuances of solidarity and malevolence in peer group behaviour affecting how different kinds, levels and patterns of biography, personality, thought and action interact. The double theme of educational failure and gang phenomenology exacerbates the problem, ratcheting up the dramatic force required to maintain narrative balance. Hence the crushing ordinariness of everyday unfairness experienced by most of us ranged mid-spectra rather than at the extremes drains away – and with it the polemical precision of Mullan’s message. Why a genius swot, rather than merely a mischievous imagination and nimble mind? Or male relatives so monstrously cowing all comers, with the parallel overkill of utter social dislocation when houses of macho cards tumble down? Completely invisible now are aspirations hampered by lacks of horizons, social aptitudes, and training in middle-class taste and networking – as are other underlying barriers to cultural cohesion, mutual respect and care and, especially, refusal of superior pretension, which might bulwark lower-class lives against the depradations and degradations of our ‘betters’ irrespective of fame, fortune or abandonment of roots. Neds may subject to punishing account the philanthropic presumptions of liberal social democracy, but its broken promises surely need transcending altogether.
Neds is available now on DVD.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 72, No. 12, June 2011.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: