Director    Peter Mullan
Starring    Conor McCarron, Peter Mullan, Martin Bell, Steven Robertson, Richard Mack, Marcus Nash
Release    21 JAN (UK)    Certificate 18
3 stars


22nd January 2011

Peter Mullan is vomit-inducingly talented. Not content with being merely a respected actor, or an acclaimed writer, or a talented director, Mullan is all three. Simultaneously. What a massive show-off.

In short, Mullan's had a hand in most of the best stuff to come out of Scotland in the last two decades, everything from Trainspotting to Rab C. Nesbitt. He's best known for his award-winning performance in My Name Is Joe, and for his deeply depressing film The Magdalene Sisters. Mullan claims Neds is not autobiographical, but his teen years in Glasgow when he was involved with gangs certainly give the film authenticity. Mostly.

Mullan's latest film invites us to spend some time among Non-Educated Delinquents, and no, we're not talking about The Shiznit team (chortle chortle). John McGill (Conor McCarron) is the anti-hero, an angry young man who could have toppled out of an Alan Sillitoe novel. Growing up in 70s Glasgow, McGill is a bright kid determined to make it in school, but he's plagued by the reputation of his tough nut older brother.

After a string of knocks, the self-fulfilling prophecy kicks in and the downward spiral begins. His relationship with his father (a terrifying performance from Mullan himself) goes from bad to worse and before long he's wielding a knife in a local gang. But he's not pissing about with a penknife like the others; he's brutally violent, unpredictable and unafraid.

[gallery]There's a touch of This Is England about Neds, only McGill is more complicit and less sympathetic than Shaun. However, even when McGill is at his most unpleasant, (there's a scene involving a slab of stone and a boy's head that springs to mind), he is simultaneously a victim. There's an agonising injustice at the heart of McGill's story - it could all have been so different. If only his teacher had recognised his potential, if only the mother of his posh friend hadn't snubbed him, if only his inspiring auntie was around more, if only he hadn't picked up that knife. Worst of all, for all the John McGills out there today, nothing has really changed.

For the most part, the film is a tough but straightforward depiction of McGill's teen experiences, with a raw quality helped in no small part by a brilliant performance from newcomer Conor McCarron. Occasionally Mullan throws in ostentatious, sometimes surreal embellishments. This is presumably Mullan's way of marking himself out as different from the School of Gritty British Realism; the 'Kitchen Sink' sub-genre whose alumni include Shane Meadows, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.

It's understandable, but not entirely successful. The frenetic fight scene on a bridge accompanied by 'dancing cheek to cheek' works, as does the trippy hallucination sequence in which a statue of Jesus comes to life. Other scenes, not so much.

Eventually, McGill is given a shot at redemption; it's imperfect, but it's a lifeline. It forces him to face the consequences of his actions day after day and gives him the opportunity to make amends.

... If only the film had ended there. It was originally Mullan's intention to sign off at this point, and if he had, you would currently be reading a 4-star instead of a 3-star review. Unfortunately, like an overly eager junior chef, Mullan doesn't know when to stop seasoning.

The film loses its way in the last half hour, John's deteriorating relationship with his father is pushed too far and the sequence in which he straps kitchen knives to his hands is way too much. It finishes on a particularly preposterous note in a safari park. It's an admirable experiment to combine gritty realism with surreal twists, and Danny Boyle might get away with it, but sadly, Mullan doesn't.

More:  NEDS  Peter Mullan
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