Peter Mullan has long been one of Britain’s best actors following his fantastic performance as a recovering alcoholic in Loach’s My Name Is Joe. His third feature as a director gives evidence of a man equally powerful behind the camera as in front of it. His film is Neds, which stands for Non-Educated Delinquents, a blend of social realism and Greek tragedy that is harrowing, but absolutely brilliant.
First-timer Conor McCarron is fantastic as John McGill, a clever kid who looks set to rise above his working-class roots as he moves into secondary school. However, his older brother Barry has already made his mark there, having been expelled for assaulting two teachers. John encounters prejudice from the headmaster and ridicule from his teachers. Disillusioned, John finds that he can get by playing up to the reputation of his brother; head of local youth gang, the Young Car-Ds. John ends up instead in a downward spiral and with no idea as to the best way to act.
In John McGill, Mullan and McCarron have constructed a character that could initially be anyone of us. He is just trying to get by, doing what is expected of him. At first, it is academic or it is making good friends or striving to achieve a kind of social mobility, escaping his working class background. Disappointment and ridicule are the result, sometimes his fault and sometimes not. At home and at school, it is instilled in him that violence is power. His acceptance into a youth gang and his subsequent battles against rivalry and authority are shockingly inevitable and things are followed to their logical and extreme conclusion. After one particularly brutal clash, John stands, bloodied knife in hand, with a glazed look in his eyes, seemingly awaiting the praise of the others, which is not forthcoming. Seeking acceptance, John goes further than any of his peers had planned to go and suddenly everything is at risk.
The film is a tough watch, but as a social critique and as a drama it is stunningly moving. Peter Mullan can use the simplest techniques to achieve a form of visceral horror, whether it is in the lighting, the score or the faces of his actors. There is not a lot of blood in the film (there is certainly a lot more in other films), but there are moments of sheer horror. Not content with making just another piece of kitchen sink realism, however, Mullan allows his film to take flights of fancy, indicating an evocative and haunting style all his own.
The film was given a ‘18’ rating by the BBFC, something that is rather frustrating as the film is primarily aimed at people who are John’s age, around 15. This problem also beset the equally important This is England and is troubling as the youths who may benefit from the film’s message are too young to see it. Neds is a film that warns about gang culture, but it is not so self-important to think that it can solve the problem. Its main objective is to warn its young audience of how far they can sink. As drama, this film is powerful, but it is as a moral and social tragedy that the film packs its real punch.