The Review: There’s an unfortunate truth about attempting to compile a list of great British directors: most of them are likely to be dead. Two of the last three winners of the Best Director Academy Award hail from these shores, but many of our best talents struggle for recognition on the wider stage. For many of those who struggle undeservedly for recognition, the themes they reflect are of the British underclass, those working classes who have to struggle against adversity at any turn, so many British character actors will often end up playing similar roles along similar themes. One such actor is Peter Mullan, who’s probably best known for his turns in Scottish themed films such as Braveheart and Trainspotting, and his third film as director tackles not only a working class background, but another staple of British film, the coming of age drama.
There’s a risk of descending into cliché when treading not one, but two well worn paths, but Neds feels both comfortable on those paths and still manages to feel fresh and vibrant. Neds is the story of John McGill, an unusually bright boy who’s entering into the world of men, and has to find his place. His brother is well known in local circles, particularly as being someone not to be messed with, but that also brings its fair share of trouble for John, who finds himself tarred with the same brush. His education gets him noticed, but also risks making him a target, so John increasingly finds himself living down to expectations in an effort to survive. What’s unexpected is what John will do once a little power begins to go to his head, and he finds himself with more than one fight on his hands.
The cast is made up of largely local children who’ve taken their first steps into acting, and consequently the performances feel authentic but also raw and edgy. Leading the cast are Gregg Forrest and Conor McCarron, who portray John at different ages, and McCarron especially is a revelation as the confused and often angry youngster. Many of the best lines go to the teachers, who capture perfectly the sarcasm and disdain that teachers so often seem to exhibit to exert their superiority over their students in such situations. The other notable performances are that of John’s parents, especially a raging, bewildering turn by Mullan himself as John’s father. Mullan’s direction must also be credited for getting the most out of the performances, and for also giving the Seventies setting such a feeling of realism that you might almost think this is archive footage, and his script is by turns authentic and uncompromising.
I really do mean uncompromising – the “18” rating of the film isn’t earned for the violence, but for “very strong lanugage”, and in an age when “The King’s Speech” can get a 12A with 17 F-words, that’s no small feat. Not that you’ll understand all of it; Trainspotting famously got subtitled for Americans when shipped over there, and goodness only knows that they’d make of this, the accents being as authentic as everything else, and just occasionally impenetrable for anyone born south of the border. Thankfully the ebb and flow of the film serves to keep understanding and momentum on those odd occasions when the words might be literally too thick and fast. The violence in the film would apparently have been worth only a “15” rating, but it’s sporadic and all the more effective for it, occasional sickening blows which serve to underline the error of John’s ways, if not always his motivations. The overall package of school laughs and out of school anger is compelling enough; what really elevates this are the occasional surreal moments, including an unlikely encounter with Jesus and an ending which probably serves as the most surreal metaphor for the entirety of the movie it’s in seen in many a year. All in all, fantastic work from all concerned, and we can only hope that Mullan picks up his own pace soon; there feels much more he’s worthy of exploring, but at three films in fourteen years, he’d better get a move on.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s a slow burner, but when it does it burns bright and fierce. The humour and the drama deserve a communal audience, and you never know, you might be able to check with your neighbour if you’re really struggling. (The Movie Evangelist does not condone talking in the cinema, but needs must sometimes.)
The Score: 9/10