(Jul 14 at 7pm, and Jul 16 at noon at Camera 3 in San Jose)
By Richard von Busack
Neds (part of the From Britain, With Love series) shows us the miseducation of a violent kid in 1972 in suburban Scotland. Johnny is an altar boy, a highly intelligent student with hopes of going to college. He gets pushed into the thug life for a number of reasons. First, there are familial expectations; he’s the little brother of a feared local ass-kicker. Second is the pressure of his vicious, drunken father (played by Peter Mullan, who directed). Third is class snobbery, which wounds him personally. Fourth is the multitude of knife-wielding bad kids in his neighborhood. This neighborhood isn’t an industrial hellhole; it’s green and it’s quiet. It has parks, but their fringes are loaded with gangs.
Mullan has said that this profane, jargon-rich, and subtitled film has its autobiographical side. This seems likely, since it’s a series of well-visualized incidents without a lot of forward progression.
There is an arc from Johnny’s first realization of danger, to a final, redeeming act of mercy. But Neds is completely on Johnny’s side—he’s always underestimated by teachers and rival kids alike. He’s called “wee man” even after he gets physically burly. The film is so focused on Johnny’s troubles that it doesn’t get deeper as a portrait of other people. The women in the picture remain sketches. It’s strange that the director of The Magdalene Sisters, which was so rich with slangy women’s voices, doesn’t give the female characters any memorable lines.
The movie flirts with occasional forays into the magical-realism. The most lurid of these moments has Christ coming down off his cross and sorting out the hero… in the north of London sense of the term “sorting out,” meaning “to beat up”. The rosy-faced, pale and well-fed Conor McCarron (making his debut) is the most interesting representative of young Celtic violence since Eamonn Owens’ Francie in The Butcher Boy (1997). (The Jesus vision may be a tribute to Francie the Bad Bastard’s own cozy relationship with the Virgin Mary.)
McCarron is stocky and low voiced. He’s slightly passive, which is why no one recognizes his capacity for dangerousness until it’s too late. That quietness makes it all the more plausible to believe he’s being pushed into crime. And he is pushed, throughout; after one creative act of vandalism involving shoes full of fireworks, he screams “If you want a NED, I’ll show you one!” (The film’s title stands for a local expression, “Non-Educated Delinquents.”)
We can see the kind of intelligence that gets Johnny into trouble: standing up to the teachers who use taunting, whippings, and sarcasm. He even a flogging just to show a teacher he knows better. The school attendants are diabolically innovative in their sadism. Neds isn’t a very funny movie, but one of the best bursts of evil humor is the way a headmaster deals out some corporal punishment, under the guise of helping Johnny to class.
Mullan, who played the suffering urban priest Martin Laws in the Red Riding series, has a square, weatherbeaten face; he’s like a small-scale version of the late Pete Postlethwaite. That face gets rearranged here. (Mullan directs himself as a looming presence, seen from the waist down pushing the family aside in their chairs; he’s almost a headless body.) The dad terrorizes his family, waking them up when he’s back from the pubs, screaming drunkenly for his wife. Next to his perch on the stairs is a family heirloom, an aged, embroidered sampler reading “Sweet Rest in Heaven”.
This prop is a little obvious. So is the fight scene scored to a version of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek”; it’s too much like Kubrick’s similarly ironic use of “Singin’ in the Rain” in A Clockwork Orange.
The film is built like an old fifties JD melodrama: clearly society is to blame, and yet Mullan gets a jolt out of the sensationalism of teen violence. The gangs make something happen in an otherwise dull place.
On the whole, Neds is evocative of a life of constant danger. It expresses what it’s like for a young man under constant assault. He has two unenviable choices. He can either endure, or he can make matters worse by retaliating. McCarron’s uniqueness in the role, balancing intelligence and a growing wrathful streak, takes Neds out of the social problem film file and into something noteworthy. You see McCarron and you wonder if it’s true that the lean and hungry ones are really the ones to beware.