(18) Running Time: 124 minutes
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
Award winning writer and director Peter Mullan is making a bit of a name for himself. After the success of Orphans and The Magdalene Sisters, Neds see’s Mullan finally get his proper break out hit. Based on personal, but not autobiographical experiences, Neds is a harsh, brutal and at times very frightening tale of growing up in 1970’s Glasgow. The words Neds apparently stands for ‘Non-Educated Delinquents’ and the films is mostly based around a group of teenagers at secondary school.
We meet John McGill (Connor McCarron), a lad just about to make the move to secondary school who has a bright future ahead of him, and makes the move to the ‘big school’ at the top of his class. With a caring auntie, a loving but scared Mother and a drunk Father, John has come out on top so far with brilliant grades and a good reputation. Celebrating at a school leavers party with his Mother, teachers and classmates right outside the school, John suddenly realises what the move to the big school, and adult-hood could mean as a young thug approaches and threatens him right in front of celebrating parents, teachers and pupils. John is shaken by why this lad would single him out and threaten to cut him up, and suddenly we are made aware of John’s older Brother Benny (Joe Szula) a local thug with a fearsome reputation and one who rarely stays at home. John asks for his help, and pretty soon the threatening thug is brought to the family home and bullied for John to see. It as at this point that we see a connection between the two brothers which I liked. Far too many of these types of films see the brothers falling out or hating each other, and i expected that here since one was a street wise thug and the other a bit of a square at school. Hats off to Mullan for offering up something real, human and at times, rather touching.
John starts his life at secondary school, but unfortunately the reputation of his brother does not just rule the streets, it rules the school as well. John was expelled, and many of his gang still attend the very school John has gone to. Benny’s reputation seems to have almost sealed poor John’s fate as he is unfairly not allowed in the top class, and in an embarrassing moment with the next class down, he returns to the teacher he has just argued with over his class placing. John is ordered to speak to the headmaster, but if he is told to come back to the next class down, he will get the belt across his hands for wasting the teachers time. Suddenly we realise that secondary school is a strict, and brutal place and John is about to learn this the hard way. He is told by the headmaster to go back to this class, and the look on the headmasters face when he realises that Benny is John’s older brother speaks a thousand words. However, John is offered the chance of redemption by coming in the top three of his class by Christmas this will grant him access to the top class. He works hard and wins his chance. Things spiral out of control as it would appear the teachers don’t care much for their students and would rather ridicule them and embarrass them. In a shocking scene, John comes top of his new class and is made to stand on his chair while the class are ordered to praise his good work. This is no place for a young lad trying to get on in life that’s for sure. The harsh reality is, no one cares if you do well or not, and John starts to grow bitter inside. The constant nagging at night of his drunk Father, played with impeccable genius by Peter Mullan, is unsettling, scary and upsetting, He stands at the bottom of the stairs ordering his wife down, calling her a ‘fat bitch’ and other hurtful things. John is on the verge of giving up, and that time comes…
Connor McCarron’s portrayal of a young, gifted lad is superb, but it is his turn as a violent thug which truly astonishes and is actually very very frightening. Now, those looking for all out violence every five minutes may want to steer well clear of Neds, for this is not that film. It does offer up sickening violence, but it is brief, realistic and vicious. John is walking home from school one day and a gang of thugs try to rob him, until one recognises him as Benny’s ‘little brother’. Seduced by being bad, and thanks to the reputation of his brother, John joins the gang for a drink and a smoke, and a downward spiral into madness follows. Finding his true calling, John wants nothing more than to be bad, and looks for any excuse to get involved in arguments, fights or incidents with the police. Witness John chase some rival gang members in a way to make a name for himself, which leads to a truly awkward conclusion, or the ‘battle on the bridge’, the beating and ‘tombstoning’ of a poor lad that threatened him. John starts to become out of control, and we are there with him every step of the way. For a moment you feel his want to fit in, to be feared, to be respected, but that feeling soon fades as John gets deeper and deeper into dark territory. Taking drugs, alcohol and with a desperate need for violence, he is a million miles away from the bright young lad he once was. Teachers become afraid, and in a powerful scene, his Auntie suddenly realises the true depths of his gang membership on a visit to the house.
John loves his new found reputation, and in a touching and strangely heartwarming scene, he and his older brother share a look of satisfaction at a local party. Benny loves being a thug, and the fact his younger brother has followed in his footsteps makes him proud. When John witnesses Benny take on ten lads at once, he suddenly realises that’s what he wants to be like. But this film is about more than just violence. It is about fitting in, the want to be feared and respected and the want to be able to walk through life without being scared, and the final scene proves just that. However, to get to that final scene, you have to endure some pretty horrific stuff, and that’s not just the violence, but mental torture and a devastatingly broken family. John’s Dad may be a heartless drunk, but you come to a point where you actually feel sorry for the old man. John himself stoops so low that you cannot help but want to help him as he spirals out of control. A shocking scene involving a dream-like Jesus has had some bad press, but I feel it is perfectly fitting to the poor lads state of mind while high on drugs. Again, reviews have called the ending dragged out, but I disagree and feel it just goes to show how far gone John is and it unsettles and disturbs. For some it may be pushing the realism too far, bit if you have actually known people like that, then watching it feels all the more devastating and true.
Neds is a truly dramatic and emotionally draining film of the highest quality. It deals with difficult and often ignored issues and delivers a cast of truly stunning unknown actors. It is a real film, raw,, powerful and unsettling. It may be too honest for some, and too scary for others, but either way, Peter Mullan has again proved himself to be one hell of a director, and one who should really be noticed after this. The Scottish backdrop is incredibly well put together too, with the seventies vibe stunningly realised. The accents may be slightly hard to understand for non Scots, but for an authentic film, why should it be made accessible? Have the subtitles at the ready, but don’t let that put you off one of the most important and brilliant British films to have come along in a good while. This is truly powerful stuff, and a film that needs an audience and deserves to be seen by anyone with even the slightest interest in strong, powerful, real dramas. Masterfully directed, incredibly acted and a film that packs more punch than a dozen Rocky films. Outstanding!