Eight years after his directorial success with The Magdalene Sisters (2002), Peter Mullan is receiving praise for his new film, Neds (2010). The film made an impression this past September in the Basque Country of Spain, when Mullan received the award for best film at the annual San Sebastian International Film Festival. The word neds is a Scottish term, which is short for non-educated delinquents. Mullan—both writer and director—draws us into working class Scotland of the 1970s, introducing us to a cast of archetypical British hooligan characters. The cinematography and production design cleverly transports us back into the 70s, the camera affecting a warm glow on the already rich color palate. Mullan tells the story of an intelligent, motivated, young boy who is determined to escape the fate of his hooligan older brother, but whose violent surroundings prevent him from succeeding. First time actor Connor McCarron gives an admirable performance for his role as protagonist John McGill, a feat that landed him a best actor award in San Sebastian. While the film is attracting critical acclaim, I found it to be somewhat contrived, with an unsatisfying, ambiguous ending. The film fails to fully explore the relationships between McGill and his fellow gang members, as well as the relationship between himself and his brother. The result is a lack of real character development. Moreover, following the pattern of many British films of this genre, Mullan is determined to deny us a happy ending. Instead, Mullan leads us down a disturbing emotional path, eventually leaving us with a feeling of hopelessness.
Simon Gallagher in his article, More Grit Please We’re British, cites two distinct types of British working class representation in film. The first is what he describes as “gritty realist movies,” a genre that, according to Gallagher, seeks “to draw genuine portraits of working class existence, without necessarily offering a way out or at least failing in any attempt at a solution.” He heralds Shane Meadows, the director of such films as This is England (2006), A Room for Romeo Brass (1999), and Somers Town (2008), as the recent king of this category. Continuing the tradition of the original working class or hooligan film of the British New Wave (1950s—1960s), many place Meadows in the same trajectory as his predecessor Ken Loach, of Poor Cow (1967) and Kes (1969) fame. Loach appeared at the end of the British New Wave, an era of filmmaking that gave voice to the working class, albeit a bleak, hopeless representation that offered no solutions. Many also compare Meadows to Mike Leigh, a director known for his gritty, working class dramas Naked (1993) and Vera Drake (2004). Leigh has recently delved into more positive themes in his film Happy Go Lucky (2008), yet he has always maintained poignant and honest character development by inviting his actors into a unique improvisation process.
According to Gallagher, as working class unity began to erode in the 1970s and 1980s, other social quantifiers such as race and sexuality began to predominate in British politics. The representation of the working class, now void of a political voice, began to cinematically evolve into the gangster. While this new era saw gangster films such as Get Carter (1971) and The Long Good Friday (1980), by the mid-1980s the influence of the original British New Wave had crept back into British cinema. This time, we saw an emergence of the second type of working class archetype—the working class hero who prevails, despite obstacles such as abusive parents, excessive exposure to drugs, alcohol, and violence, or the general inaccessibility of resources. In other words, “the way out” film. Neds takes its place amongst other members of the sub-genre of working class film, what is most often dubbed "the British hooligan film." Such films have become increasingly popular over the last decade—films that, more often than not, glorify violence and gang fighting among working class British youth. Films such as Green Street (2004), Awaydays (2009), and the aforementioned This is England (2006), serve as a contemporary throwback to the working-class-as-gangster genre of the 1970s—the story often taking place in the 1970s or 1980s—yet these films use the innocence of youth to either provide or deny a way out. Yet unlike Shane Meadows’ This is England, Neds assumes that a working class background automatically thrusts one into a cycle of violence.
With dreams of going to university, John McGill manages to keep his obstacles at bay for most of his life. Yet in a dramatic twist, he suddenly succumbs to the pressure to join a gang. Within the span of a few summer weeks, and under the influence of a handful of young neds, the apparent anger that McGill had so successfully managed throughout his secondary education explodes into violence. Somehow, the student that was once top of his class becomes a crazed ned, turning even more extreme than his fellow gang members. Luckily, McGill gets a second chance. Yet as our protagonist finally begins his ascent out of the cycle of violence, he inexplicably spirals out of control. The storyline is hard to swallow. How could such a good student and a boy that is so determined to succeed suddenly fall so deep into violence? Mullan plays with a prevalent assumption that a working class background, or that an alcoholic, abusive father necessarily means failure.
According to the BBC, Mullan has described the film as “personal but not autobiographical.” Mullan himself grew-up in a working class neighborhood in Scotland, had an alcoholic, abusive father, and also fell into the clutches of a gang. Yet, Mullan eventually left the gang and went on to university, later to become a successful actor, director, and writer. Not only does Mullan deny us his own success story, but he also provides us with a contrived, exaggerated alternative for dramatic effect. In an effort to examine the plight of the British working class, he effectively traps them within the old gangster stereotypes of the “no way out” film. In contrast, Shane Meadows’ This is England, truly delves into the emotional journey of its protagonist, Shaun Field. This is England is more nuanced. It shows rich character development, while simultaneously giving us political insight into the split and eventual transformation of some punk rock skinheads into racist skinheads. Unlike the gratuitous violence in Neds, the violence in This is England is significant and measured, serving a greater purpose to the story. Both films follow the same archetype of “gritty realist movies” that serve “to draw genuine portraits of working class existence, without necessarily offering a way out or at least failing in any attempt at a solution.” Yet while Neds offers a healthy helping of grit, it fails to present a sufficient amount of realism.
Despite critical acclaim, I found Neds to be bleak, yet lacking in greater purpose. I was unclear as to Mullan’s statement about society. Unfortunately, he provided the same stereotypes about the working class that his middle class antagonist assumes about McGill. While I didn’t necessarily expect a happy ending, I would have preferred a more realistic and less dramatic representation of our protagonist. Despite great promise and beautiful production design, I unfortunately left the theatre disappointed. Yet, if you haven’t seen This is England yet, I highly recommend it as an alternative British hooligan film. Neds comes out in the UK on January 21, 2011. This is England is currently available on DVD and on Netflix Watch Instantly in the US.