San Sebastian Film Festival 2010: Peter Mullan's Neds
Posted on Monday September 20, 2010, 21:01 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
The San Sebastian Film Festival, in northern Spain, has been in full swing for three nights now, in that time playing host to Julia Roberts, giving Roman Polanski a critics prize for The Ghost and screening a film that I fear I have now missed (the next screening is on Friday, in Korean with Basque subtitles!). That film is Kim Ji-Woon's I Saw The Devil, which I hoped would be the surprise film in Venice, and apparently is a serial-killer thriller so violent that even the Korean censor – who has given the thumbs-up to Park Chan-Wook's work – had kittens while watching it. But, although they like Julia Roberts, her smile and her hairdo, San Sebastian audiences don't mind that sort of thing. I once saw a film here in which Marisa Paredes played a lower-class mother who was forever being walloped by her sadistic neo-Nazi, heroin-dealing sons, and when the lights went up, there was a very serious but enthusiastic round of applause, as if we'd just been watching Notes On A Scandal.
Peter Mullan's Neds, then, is not a test for this audience, and its themes – violence, family, religion, redemption – are likely to find this challenging film quite a few friends. The most apparent thing about Neds, right from the off, is how beautifully cast it is. Admirers of Good Dick, no pun intended, will be pleased to see Marianna Palka as what she is: a Glaswegian who's found a new life in America. It's a small role but important; Palka plays Beth, whose nephew John (Gregg Forest) thinks the world of her. It's 1972, and we're in Glasgow. John is a smart kid, leaving primary school with a lot of promise, but, in an almost Shakespearean flourish, his destiny is foretold on his last day there. John meets a Ned – it stands for Non-Educated Delinquent – who promises John that his first day at big school will be misery. But what this Ned doesn't know is that John's brother Benny is a local celebrity, a violent hooligan and a hero to the local gang, known as the Young Car-D.
Now, what I truly loved about this movie is that it's very unusual to see a recidivist hero, since John starts out as a naïve, good egg and seems genuinely bent on making a better life for himself. It's also unusual (and I hope both actors who play John don't mind me saying this) to have a hero who looks so ordinary. And the point Mullan makes rather well in the first hour, at least in the context of 70s Britain, is about how potential means nothing if a human being doesn't have the encouragement to grow. It begins with the young John finding he's been put in the wrong class and demanding that the headmaster promote him to the top class, where he belongs. But within just a few years, John (now played by Conor McCarron), realises that his ambition is misplaced. He's from a poor family, going nowhere, and when society frowns on him, John decides to give in and just conform to type.
This half of the movie works best; it's like Blackadder's Christmas Special but for real, and it's what separates Neds from This Is England. Where Shane Meadows' film is about an innocent abroad, Mullan's equally part-autobiographical counterpoint is about anger: where it goes and what it does, and how much worse it can be when combined with intelligence. The second half of the movie, though, didn't quite work for me. Mullan's self-penned script is perhaps too ambitious to sustain Neds' two-hour running time, and the film ends on a peculiar note that somewhat overplays the film's already stretched use of metaphor. But, for this, Neds should be applauded rather than lambasted; Mullan has tried, and succeeded, in making an anti-violence gang movie from a former gang-member's perspective, and its final, complex message – that there is grace in simply not using violence rather than renouncing it – makes it stand apart from the likes of Ken Loach's Sweet 16. Neds screens twice at the LFF on October 20 and again on 22; if you can take it, try to make it.