Fresh back from the warped taster of Scottish society that is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I settled down to watch Neds, the tale of a bright young lad from a rough Glasgow family in the 1970s directed by Peter Mullan. Neds stands for “Non Educated Delinquents” and refers ironically (it should be “uneducated”) to the thuggish and feral characters that John McGill tries to avoid.
John thinks of himself as different to the low life underachievers around him wasting their lives on alcohol and ignorant quarrels between rival gangs. He has lofty ambitions of university and journalism in his sights as he leaves primary school a focused, intelligent boy, a book glued permanently to his hand. In other words he’s more likely to end up representing Scotland as an arty type in Edinburgh’s cultured crowds than as a menacing rioter. Oh wait that’s actually an English problem…
Anyway Neds begins promisingly. The ten year old John McGill is brilliantly played by Greg Forrest. He is fearful as he starts at “big school” that he will be bullied because he is smart. And of course he is right to worry. But his attitude doesn’t help, as he demands a meeting with the Headmaster after being put in the second best class, rather than the top one. He works hard in the opening months to gain promotion to the Premiership and temporarily silences the bullies by setting his criminally inclined elder brother on them.
Then though, with his grades consistently outstanding, particularly in Latin, things change in the course of a summer. Conor McCarron is now playing John as a beefed up pubescent two or three years older. He’s moving from the “annex” of the school to the main building. He’s still in the top class as his last term at the annex ends and his teacher warns him to keep busy during the summer months.
But after being shunned by his middle class private school friend and his family, and a confrontation in a playground with a gang that only respected him because of his big brother’s reputation, John goes off the rails. Tempted by popularity and peer pressure he starts slacking off. He talks back at teachers. He embraces forbidden fun. And he realises there’s nothing worthwhile they can do to stop him.
The problem I had with Neds was the nature of this transition. We barely see any of the six-week holiday period that transforms John. He goes from a lover of Latin dictionaries to a loathsome little dickhead in the blink of an eye. Clearly he was humiliated by the rejection of his posh best mate. He also has a drunken father and an anxious, all but absent mother at home to contend with. But his spiral from the escape of school work to the distraction of yobbish behaviour is not properly explored.
Of course I’m aware I might be missing the point. These things can happen quicker than you can say “gimme all yer money wee man o’ I’ll stab ye guts oot”. It might just be that the beginning of Neds resonated more with me personally. Being picked on for a lack of cool credentials and a tendency to get the right answer too often is far more familiar to me than the harsh realities of a deprived Glaswegian area.
Nevertheless John’s sudden degeneration limits where Neds can go at times. It doesn’t chronicle his suspenseful slide into failure and criminality because he falls rapidly from grace; face first into a whole load of shit he had previously dodged by burying his head in the musky pages of a book’s embrace. Redemption always looks unlikely and as a viewer your hopes are repeatedly dashed and downgraded. I was reduced to praying that he did not slip to an ever lower rung of grim despair.
Talking of prayer and redemption, Neds contains a drug fuelled fight scene with Jesus, along with a lot of other considerably more delicate religious references. Not many films can claim to contain a fight with the son of God and I’m not sure why Neds does. It’s certainly not a good scene but one worth mentioning I’m sure you’ll agree.
The Jesus bashing scene takes place in a disjointed final third erratically looking for a suitable endpoint. Director Peter Mullan, an instantly recognisable actor, chooses to give himself the role of John’s father and it’s towards the end of the film he becomes a thicker strand of the plot. But their relationship has zero setup and the father as a character is so two dimensional he is almost redundant.
Neds does have its good points. Its period detail is so spot on that the film doesn’t look like a modern production but as though it were made at the time. The acting from most of cast is faultless and the portrayal of school life is vivid. But as I’ve said the film’s major flaw is its narrative pacing and progression. John has already fallen so far by the end that there’s nowhere for the story to go and discretely wrap up satisfactorily.