Notes from the LFF: Neds (Peter Mullan, UK/France/Italy, 2010)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2010

For those who do not know, NED stands for Non-Educated Delinquent, although it typically is a term bandied about north of Hadrian’s Wall by the bourgeoisie when it wishes to describe people whom those south of the border would call chavs (or Kevs, depending on your generation).

Despite the fact that the term refers to what one class calls another, however, Peter Mullan’s latest film, Neds, does not really deal too much with class difference. John McGill (Conor McCarron) is a bright young thing from a working class family who makes friends with a posh kid, Julian (Martin Bell), at one point, and after Julian’s mother tells John that she does not want him around her house anymore, John comes back and throws some fireworks through their window, shouting: “If you want a Ned, I’ll give you a Ned.”

Aside from this (and a brief moment in which John sees Julian on a bus some time later, before having to flee from the police), the issue of class difference does not surface too much. Instead, the film spends most of its time showing how John, like another John (Reece Dinsdale) from British cinema, becomes seduced by and ends up embracing more than any of his peers, the world of (in Neds, 1970s Glasgow) gang violence.

When John does tell Julian’s family that he’ll give them a Ned if that’s what they want, however, there is of course a sense of ‘Neddishness’ as a performance. Given that John has been rejected by the upper middle class, he decides fully, it seems, to become that which that self-same class loathes and fears: a violent Weegie who’ll chib ya for looking at him the wrong way.

It is not that the rejection of Julian’s mother is the sole factor that turns John from class swot destined for university to the Ned that he becomes. His family is a broken one, with his father (Peter Mullan) habitually beating/raping his mother, while his brother is also the hard man about town. What is more, when he makes friends with the rest of Car-D, the gang that he joins, he seems genuinely to make friends. Why not hang around with these guys if Julian is going to be so two-faced?

However, if Neddishness is something of a performance, then what lies beneath? Well, John the swot remains; even though by the end of the film John has been placed in a class for kids who cannot/will not perform academically, he continues to be a bookworm – and one gets a sense that he will ‘rehabilitate’ himself/that the clever and timid boy we saw at the beginning of the film is still there.

While this may be so, John remains someone who in the course of the film is responsible for holding up a bus at knife point (and the driver remembers him, hence John’s need to flee from the police when he encounters Julian on the bus later on in the film), for giving a kid permanent brain damage by dropping a gravestone on his head, and for knifing a rival from another local gang. It is not that we end up disliking John for these things (personally, I did, but many viewers may not); it is more that all of this must catch up with him one day – not least because the driver and rival gang members recognise him.

In other words, if being a Ned is a ‘performance,’ it is a performance that John takes so far that it becomes hard, if not impossible, for him to turn back to the ‘real’ John at the end of the film, even though to an extent this is what we are led to believe.

The film ends with John leading the boy whom he has given brain damage across a safari park. The moment is surreal, in that John and the boy (whose name escapes me – and IMDb has minimal information, so my apologies) hold hands and walk past a (digitally inserted) pride of lions. It is not clear what this moment ‘means,’ but it does suggest that John will be haunted forever by the crimes that he has committed, and also that the animal/lion in him is never going to go away. But it also suggests that somehow he has come to terms with himself after all of the experiences that he has had – and that, therefore, he is somewhat at peace (the lions do not attack the boys). This is fair enough, but how John will escape revenge from the other gang, or arrest when randomly the bus driver spots him again, or why indeed he does not hand himself in for all of the above, is unclear. Or rather: it is not unclear so much as troubling. We should bear in mind that Peter Mullan’s film does not have to avoid being troubling, but I did feel resistance to the forgiveness that it seemed to want me to give John.

Perhaps this means that Neds exposes my bourgeois values: I cannot get my head round someone who does not make real the ‘moral’ lesson that they have learned by facing up to what they have done. I feel this because I am a victim of luxury, a hypocritical sense of my own innocence, and, most likely, a lingering sense of morality bestowed upon me by my Christian upbringing (chapel every day at school, etc).

John, meanwhile, has been betrayed by Julian, the film’s bourgeois representative; he has experienced the thrill of gang violence that I am too cowardly to face (though I like the idea of it); and he has – in a dream/hallucination sequence that takes place when John is high from sniffing glue – literally been knifed by Jesus. So why would John care for my moral values and want to act in a way that I feel is appropriate to him? In some respects, he may ‘want’ to do this; but then again, he’s a Ned, so why not behave like a Ned and not do what I want him to do?

That John ends up in a safari park is perhaps significant. There is a scene in La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, France, 1995), in which the main characters (Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui, Hubert Koundé) tell a news reporter investigating the banlieues to go forth and multiply, explaining that ‘this is not Thoiry.’ Thoiry is a safari park near Paris – the implication being that the media should not wander into housing estates with their cameras and look curiously at and record for amusement the lives of others that they thus in part consider to be animals put out for show. (Oh, the problems of shanty town and favela tourism – or poorism as sometimes I think of it.)

One wonders whether Peter Mullan is making a similar point with regard to Neds. We cannot make of the working classes (or the past, since Neds is set in the 1970s) a theme or safari park through which we wander, flirting with ‘danger’ and ‘excitement’ without ever experiencing either. Neds therefore self-consciously raises the issue of whether the film itself is not an exoticisation of working class Glasgow life. Whether the film itself is not something of a performance of Neddishness, beneath which is… a creative spirit as bourgeois as those with which the film otherwise denies kinship?

In some of the great British New Wave films, such as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, UK, 1962) and Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, UK, 1963), there is a real sense in which the anti-hero, in these films respectively Colin and Billy, who are both played by Tom Courtenay, refuses at the last to take the opportunity to escape from his ‘depressing’ and working class life. Colin refuses to win the race that might help him to improve his lot in borstal, while Billy refuses to get on the train that might lead him to a different and supposedly ‘better’ life. The failure of performance becomes here a performance of failure, which in turn hides something of a success. Why should Colin run just to please other people? Why should Billy get on the train in order to find a ‘kind of living/loving‘ that is not necessarily his own? One may want more money, more freedom to move, and so on – but the Mephistophelian contract of class mobility demands that if you want wealth and, most of all, to be ‘accepted’ by those people that have brandished you as chavs or Neds, then you have to turn your back on and give up everything that you have ever known.

Where Cemetery Junction (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, UK, 2010) sees Freddie (Christian Cooke) successfully run away by train in the end (albeit an hour late), the British New Wave films’ characters do not want to turn their back on everything they have known in order to have a ‘better’ life. Perhaps this is because, at the last, they are prey to the very ideological beliefs that imprison people – psychologically as much as physically – in economic penury. John in Neds cannot at the last kill his father, in spite of his father’s wish for him to do so, and in spite of the vicious beating that John gives to him with a saucepan or frying pan earlier in the film. While this shows that John finally loves his roots, no matter how ‘terrible,’ violent or traumatic they are both for him and for we audience members who judge it, as is expressed by his tearful embrace of his father, it might also be one set of beliefs that John cannot throw off – namely that you love your family through thick and thin.

Let us think about this: if we (or I, certainly) feel cold towards John at the end for not, say, handing himself in, it is because I am trying to impose upon him a set of moral values that are middle class but which present themselves as being natural and universal. I similarly feel saddened that John has not embraced/realised his academic potential and gotten out of Glasgow as he ‘should’ do. However, if getting out of Glasgow and the working class means turning one’s back on everything that one is or from which one comes, then in some respects, John would have figuratively if not literally to kill his father in order to achieve this/to do so. And yet, John does not kill his father when he has the opportunity to do so. My hypocrisy resides here: I in fact think John should have killed his father, or done the equivalent thereof by leaving Glasgow and never returning (something that John’s brother apparently does by moving to Spain, though this is also to avoid the heat that he has coming, too), but at the same time I frown upon John for all of the other acts of violence that he has perpetrated. I want John to believe in something, while at the same time asking him to believe in nothing. John may be a ‘fool’ of sorts at the end for not realising his potential, but in other respects, by keeping his potential as, precisely, unrealised potential, John may frustrate my expectations of him, but he also remains somehow pure potential, a member of a coming community or a people to come.

(In this sense, Neds does fit the model of cinema that has already been applied to Peter Mullan’s previous Orphans (UK, 1997) – as has been discussed here.)

John walking through the safari park, then, perhaps signals that John, unlike his brother, will not run away; instead of traveling to Spain or to Africa, the journeys he will make will be inner journeys, perhaps imaginary ones – and if he is caught for previous crimes committed, then he will face up to them, as opposed to going to Spain to escape them like his brother. In other words, John finally does show profound moral responsibility for what he has done – even if he is not in a hurry to hand himself in. Furthermore, he fails to perform/performs failure, and does not turn his back on his family life – which gives him a sense of integrity greater than that of the audience members/me who are egging John on to realise his academic potential, to go to university, and… what? Get a humdrum job like everyone else, watch TV every night over dinner, and congratulate himself on the fact that he feels nothing, believes in nothing, and has no trouble with anything…?

Upon first leaving the cinema after watching Neds at the London Film Festival, I felt somewhat disappointed in the film, as did my two Scottish companions who watched the film with me. Maybe the film felt like a bit of ‘poorism,’ without the overt community values that would have turned the film from Neds into This is Scotland. It was a performance of Neddishness, underneath which lies, as per Shane Meadows’ film, a sweet heart that wants the love of the middle classes that it so happily titillates throughout its duration.

Furthermore, the film was a performance of ‘shite Scotland’ that so pleases English and other communities: a ‘you’re only happy when you’ve escaped Glasgow’ kind of narrative that allows the English to feel safe in their condescending sense of superiority over their neighbours.

In these ways, Neds was disappointing – but that John chooses not to leave Glasgow also made the film interestingly troubling: we don’t like narratives that falsify how shite Glasgow/Scotland is, but we are perplexed that John does not want to escape it. We want to eat our cake and have it. But such reactions also perhaps do not give the film credit for what it is, since they try to judge it against an imaginary film that Neds is not – although if that film did exist, it might be a mix of Small Faces (Gillies Mackinnon, UK, 1996) and

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