The Magdalene Sisters is a powerful, realist critique of abuse in the Catholic establishment and Peter Mullan’s latest film Neds similarly questions the role of religion in a working class Glaswegian community. Semi autobiographical, Neds is both a study of gang culture in 1970s Glasgow and a family melodrama that Mullan has referred to as a Greek tragedy. The bleakness with which Mullan represents the adolescent working class youth of John McGill (Conor McCarron) echoes recent films like Gomorrah, Red Road and This is England. All of these films depict a familiar social realist situation in which the youth in particular are victims of unemployment, poverty and urban dystopia. In the case of Neds, John McGill is a notably intelligent student and excels rapidly in his school, attracting the label of a swot. However, his desire for social mobility is exacerbated by the more disruptive youth elements around him especially at school, eventually leading to his social exclusion from education. John McGill like Shaun in This is England is really searching for a sense of belonging and gang culture becomes attractive because of the identity it offers disaffected youth trying desperately to resist the mainstream values of society.
The sequences in the classroom point to a thematic concern with social exclusion, underlining a defunct education system in which working class kids are either written off completely or seduced by the relative excitement of gang warfare. Unlike This is England and the recent Fish Tank in which father’s are absent from the family equation, in Neds, the family is a broken one in which the father played by Mullan lives in a permanent state of despair and hopelessness. Such despair is mirrored in the lack of direction McGill begins to experience as he becomes increasingly involved in gang violence. Mullan’s work owes a lot to the social realist tradition of Ken Loach and in many ways Neds is an extension of My Name is Joe which Mullan made with Loach in 1998. This is by far the best film I have seen this year and an example of British cinema that is the complete antithesis of a film like The King’s Speech. In other words, it is unpretentious, socially relevant, brilliantly performed (most of the actors are non professionals) and deals with ordinary people in an honest way. In years to come it will stand alongside other great British youth films such as Sweet Sixteen, If..., Kes, A Clockwork Orange and This is England. As for the final moments, well, it's magically cinematic in so many ways.
Here's director Peter Mullan talking about the experience of making the film: