Review by Lisa Giles-Keddie
SCOTTISH actor/writer/director Peter Mullan (The Magdalene Sisters, Orphans) may well have struck gold with his first internationally marketable feature, NEDS – even though its broad Glaswegian dialect takes some getting used to, and resulted in subtitles at its world premiere in Toronto.
What Mullan gets right every time that translates, regardless of language, is his casting and his actors’ performances, be that down to ‘pot luck’ as he admitted at the BFI London Film Festival, or not. Mullan has a magic touch for gritty realism, and NEDS is no exception.
Mullan claims NEDS is a ‘personal but not autobiographical’ coming-of-age tale set in 1970s Glasgow, where gang violence is rife, and being born into an environment without prospects is like a heavy chain around any bright young kid’s neck.
NEDS may not be autobiographical, but it does have some obvious personal investment, that’s for sure, to allow for some brilliant improv and direction.
Mullan plays a violent and sadistic drunk, so we can only guess whom his character is based on, although he remained guarded when asked.
NEDS stands for ‘Non-Educated Delinquents’, or ‘chavs’ to others, and plays out like a powerful and engaging dichotomy set in a claustrophobic pressure-cooker environment: violent and tender; terrifying and humorous.
This is interesting, considering Mullan’s story was originally about violent knife crime – as poignant today as back then, but became an emotional journey about adolescence and growing up.
The change in direction allows Mullan some leeway to inject humour through its cheeky and sardonic repertoire and fun music score that accompanies the brutal fight scenes (like Irving Berlin’s Cheek To Cheek). Its parallels with This Is England will not be lost – an easily influenced boy falling in with the wrong crowd – but it’s a stand-alone contender destined for box office success all the same.
The story follows studious and confident, working-class John McGill from the start of a glowing academic career at secondary school, to his derailment by the class and lifestyle he’s born into, after experiencing social discrimination, as he ventures deep into knife-wielding gangland.
This may seem like classic Brit social realist film-making, or kitchen-sink drama from its synopsis – and in some respects it is, with its bunch of disillusioned young men.
But its lead character still manages to cling onto a haunting humanity, played by newcomer and fellow Scot Conor McCarron, making you root for him until the bitter end.
McCarron gives the kind of performance you’d expect from a seasoned pro, never once missing a beat opposite Mullan in some of the most harrowing scenes of the film.
McCarron, as McGill, displays both baby-faced vulnerability and menacing psychosis, with one shocking moment being his graveyard revenge on a boy who threatened him years earlier on a school crossing.
We empathise with his spiralling anger and frustration and his limited life choices, given his near-hopeless surroundings, signalling Mullan’s expert character development.
NEDS is another human story full of charisma, guts and determination to push dividing social issues to the fore on screen. Its compassion is its driving point and the key to its success, reflecting the real-life passion and charm of its creator.
Running time: 134mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: May 23, 2011