First look - Neds by Peter Mullan

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This January marks director Peter Mullan’s return to form with the release of his new film, Neds (shorthand for "Non-Educated Delinquents"); the catch-all Scottish equivalent of "chav").

Mullan’s third feature, Neds is a bleak and powerful coming-of-age tale set against a backdrop of deprivation and gang violence in Seventies Glasgow. Over the course of the film’s two tense hours, Neds charts the early life of John McGill — a quietly intelligent 12-year-old – and his journey into adulthood.

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McGill’s home life is, to say the least, dysfunctional. His older brother, Benny, is a violent thug and leader of the local "Car-D" mob, and his father is a volatile alcoholic (played with monstrous authority by Mullan himself).

As he moves into secondary education, McGill, seeking both acceptance and safety from his peers, falls in with the youngest members of his brother’s gang. Drawn into a cycle of escalating violence, McGill loses sight of his goals and aspirations, goading and mocking the teachers he looked up to, and smirking to his classmates as his corporal punishment (a leather thrashing to the hands) is administered.

McGill’s life spirals rapidly downhill. He inhabits a world of directionless days and chaotic nights punctuated by acts of violence; in one of the film’s most haunting sequences McGill tapes knives to his hands and stalks the streets of Glasgow, before attacking an entire gang and reveling in the ferocious beating he subsequently endures.

The film ends with the possibility of redemption. Despite the positive upshot, Mullan avoids reaching for a neat or moralistic ending. Judgment is withheld throughout the film; the violence, when depicted, is shown as clumsy and pointless, and is all the more shocking for it.

Despite its darkness, Neds is shot through with moments of humour and warmth, and the visual recreation of Seventies Glasgow is at times wistful and affectionate. Having drawn on his own childhood experiences for the narrative, Mullan’s film feels remarkably authentic.

The dialogue, almost all of which was improvised, practically crackles, and the ensemble cast of first-time actors present uniformly compelling performances, with Connor McCarron shining in his assured debut as the 14-year old John McGill. Having already claimed top honours at the San Sebastian film festival (the Golden Shell for Best Film, plus Best Actor for McCarron) and garnering a growing critical buzz, Neds looks set for further success.

Neds is out on January 21 2011

Words by Max Olesker