Peter Mullan has an admirable body of work behind him as an actor, gaining an experience in the working-class dramas of Ken Loach (My Name is Joe) and wayward youth films of Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) that you would imagine has stood him in good stead for his own work as a film director. Because, make no mistake about it – although it’s unlikely that anyone will expect anything different from the director of Orphans and The Magdalene Sisters, directing a third feature called “Neds” (Non-Educated Delinquents) – Peter Mullan makes intense, gritty films about those at the bottom of the human scrap-heap, tackling subjects of such misery, brutality and deprivation that no-one surely goes to see them in the expectation of light entertainment or diversion.
Perhaps more than his working experience as an actor, it would seem to be his own personal experience and understanding of a particular social class that informs Peter Mullan’s films and which distinguishes them from the social commentary misery dramas from the other predominately middle-class and middle-aged British directors, Mullan’s films aren’t so much out to highlight social injustice as much as to simply give a platform to those who are traditionally not given their own voice in the cinema, or who have it twisted to suit the necessities of dramatic narrative. The people in Neds are not characters, they are people, and the only narrative construction worth putting onto the film is the one that the director clearly knows about – life.
You wouldn’t want to meet any of the people in Neds in real-life, but you probably already have and the experience has no doubt left scars – perhaps even physical ones. Depending on your age and social background, you may even identify with and recognise much of what happens in Mullan’s film, since practically every scene has the feel of complete authenticity in its depiction of simply growing up and adapting to or reacting against your environment. But, still, who wants to watch a film about thugs who cannot be educated, a film moreover that doesn’t even take up the slightest moralistic stance on the social inequalities faced by those who grow up in such an environment, or even offer a cautionary take on where a life of violence is likely to lead?
Rather there’s a grim inevitability that sets in from the moment that John McGill, the class swot, appeals to the headmaster of his new secondary school not to devalue his ability on account of his delinquent older brother, but to put him in the top class so that he can get to university. Oh, John’s capable all right, but as unfair and unjust as it seems, in a way the headmaster is right and he knows, or at least suspects, that the family circumstances and social background that undoubtedly sent the older boy off the rails will also inevitably and eventually have an impact on John’s ambitions.
As writer and director, the example of John’s first day at school encapsulates how Mullan, as both writer and director, approaches the film and his characters. Little of it is spoken in a dramatic, expositional manner, but every single scene is bristling with suggestion and potential. The nature of the place and how children are treated is there in the very fabric of the rundown Glasgow school building during the seventies, in the “old school” corporal punishments with the strap and in every encounter between student and teacher. It's in the faces of the students alone. There’s no need for manufactured dramatic conflict or pointed commentary highlighting of social injustice and inequality and there’s no academic study of the roots of violence here. You’re not expected to sympathise with John or even entirely understand the decisions he takes. There’s no “them and us”, no establishment to blame, no right and no wrong, no bleeding-heart “they’re misunderstood” message – just the reality of the situation. The bigger picture however can be seen in the smallest of details – even in the 1970s television programmes John watches carry import beyond mere nostalgia for anyone who grew up with them – and in their accumulation.
While on the surface then there seems to be no impediment to John making it to university, the sheer enormity of the challenges he has to overcome gradually becomes apparent. In a conventional drama, this would be pinpointed in a couple of life-defining moments, but not here in Neds. It’s the near-invisibility of those small-scale moments and how they accumulate that is much more convincing. Having his hard-case brother beat-up a thug who threatens John, intimidated himself no doubt by John’s intelligence (another invisible factor, again never over-emphasised), getting caught-up in a school fight and picking up a knife, wanting to fit in with the local boys and live up to the esteem that his elder brother is held in, and the difficult circumstances at home (Mullan himself playing John’s father, whose drunken brutality is made abundantly clear without any need to graphically spell it out) all lead the boy into gang violence without him ever being aware of it or even making a conscious decision about it. Everything – every scene, every encounter – all point to only one direction.
The brilliance of the approach to the dramatic flow of life is mirrored in the dialogue. It’s hard to identify just how much is scripted, but considering the use of a cast made up almost entirely of young non-professional actors, every single one of them looking the part, none of them looking like they’ve been to stage school, the manner in which they speak to each other in authentic dialect is utterly realistic. The dialogue is crude and foul-mouthed but never banal. There’s no inappropriate eloquence, insight, dramatic exposition or contrivance in their utterances either – their dialogue speaks of who they are, where they come from and of their outlook on life, and it’s often sparkling with Glaswegian wit and irony. The rare occasions when the film slips out of its objective social realism (such as the encounter with “Jesus” or the final scene of the film) are then all the more powerful for still being firmly anchored in a subjective reality. If you’ve never been on a Glasgow housing estate or find it difficult to identify with growing up in an inner city slum and understand the chances of getting out of it, then the very last image of the film describes it perfectly.