The 1970s childhood is one which has been reminisced over fondly in popular culture many times. As someone who was born in the 1960s, the following decade is the first one I remember in its entirety and the decade ended just before I turned 16.
I had a fairly idyllic childhood. My parents weren't rich and as such I wasn't spoiled as a child but I never went without. What I did have in those years was stability at home and parents who genuinely took an interest in their children and their progress.
Where I lived was very homogenous - a new town filled mostly with families trying to get on in life and almost all of whom were linked in some way to the city of Glasgow. Glasgow in the 60s and 70s was infamous for razor gangs but of course it wasn't until I was a teenager I learned of this. As a child Glasgow was the place I visited regularly to visit my nana and papa - or to annually stand in an interminable queue at Lewis' department store to see Santa and then go downstairs to the food hall to buy some broken biscuits. I don't ever recall seeing anything sinister or frightening during my childhood in the city.
What I do recall of my own home town once I went up to high school in 1976 was a certain "type" of male youth - usually someone who dressed a certain way - with huge platform shoes, flares and long leather coats being worn almost as a uniform - and would invariably question authority. They were usually part of a gang and as such would leave their gang's graffiti wherever they went. I can still remember the names of these gangs 35 years later.
Director Peter Mullan is a mere five years older than me and he has chosen to recall the Glasgow of his youth in "Neds" but instead of being nostalgic his take on the era is altogether more brutal.
The term "ned" is used in the context of this film to mean "non educated delinquent".
John McGill leaves primary school as a prize winner but on his way out of the door is targeted by an older boy who threatens him and tells him when he sees him after the holidays at "the big school" he'll make McGill's life a misery for being "a swot".
McGill comes from a dysfunctional Catholic family which at first glance seems normal but his older brother Benny hangs around in gangs and has been expelled from both school and the family home. His father is an alcoholic and his mother is cowed and beaten by her husband.
John manages to use the gangs to his advantage but still keeping them at arms' length to ensure the older boy leaves him alone at high school. At first his promise seems to be reaching potential but something starts to go wrong and as things unravel for John he himself becomes a ned and the audience is left to see how a churgoing, prize winning schoolboy descends into levels of violence which cannot fail to shock.
~~What I Thought~~
I have mixed feelings about "Neds". On some levels it's a work of genius yet on others I found it grating and lacking in realism.
My biggest issue with the film is Mullan's direction - and certainly half an hour could have been cut from the 119 minutes running time and we might have had a better film. Things start off well but towards the end there's a feeling Mullan isn't quite sure how he's going to finish things and as a result things drag.
What is really smart however is Mullan's observation of John as he watches the good things in his life slowly taken away from him. Mullan doesn't specifically point any finger of blame at anyone but you don't have to be a genius to see he's having a go at teachers, parents, the police and the class system. As such the first 45 minutes or so are beautifully observed and where Mullan scores best is in his decision to cast Conor McCarron as John.
McCarron is quite simply incredible as John, capturing a belligerent yet desperate young man who wants to leave the violence and crime his brother is involved in behind him yet somehow cannot stop himself sliding into the same path. What McCarron has going for him is his ability to ensure the audience is rooting for him - even when it becomes obvious that his appetite for violence goes way beyond most of the other neds in the film. He has a wonderfully expressive face and with just one tiny nuance you can see some of the rage and frustration lurking within the character he plays. I actually was reminded of a very young Ray Winstone and his performance in "Scum" from over 30 years ago as I watched McCarron in this film.
Mullan plays John's father and it has to be said the role is rather one dimensional. We know he's an alcoholic and he yells almost comedic abuse at his wife (calling her a "slack Alice" or a "fat cow") from the bottom of the stairs but we have no idea why he's this way - or why his wife - who is played in an understated way by Louise Goodall - puts up with it.
Although John McGill is central to this film there's a large supporting cast of characters who are perfectly attired in the style of the era and in the clothes "neds" wore at the time. I have seen it said that the term "neds" wasn't used in the 70s but I can recall hearing it and using it then - but perhaps not with the same level of disdain it is bandied about today. In the 70s if someone was called a "ned" you generally were scared of them. Now it seems to be used to describe anyone who doesn't work and is of a lower class.
What Mullan does with this supporting cast is authentically recapture the 1970s right down to the sideburns and the Joe 90 glasses. That the vast majority of the cast are newcomers works in his favour and as such you get some memorable performances from Christopher Wallace as Wee T, Khai Nugent as Tam and Gary Milligan as the "big boy" we see at the start of the film that McGill cannot forgive or forget.
Obviously the whole film is spoken in thick Glaswegian so if you toil with the accent I would suggest putting on the subtitles. As a native speaker of Glaswegian I didn't have any problems understanding what was being said but do expect some quick one liners and lots of bad language.
There is also stacks of violence in amongst several fights and it's interesting to watch how John descends from a quiet, studious boy to someone who seems almost psychotic in his violent outbursts. I think it wasn't seeing what John did in the film that shocked me more than the fact he did it and Mullan cleverly avoids being too graphic in what you see - using darkness to hid the visual side but the sound to let you know exactly what's happening.
There was one scene which took me back to my own teenage years in the 1970s where just before a fight gang members were hurling insults at one another - with the insults laced with biting wit. I recall a similar situation being in a park as a 14 year old and seeing two lads from opposite gangs square up to one another. Not a punch was exchanged but the patter between them was extraordinary - there was no small amount of humour in what they said.
Visually this is probably the most authentic reconstruction of 1970s Glasgow I am likely to see, and it's to Mullan's credit that he is able to recreate his youth so well. The long leather coats are there, along with girls in tank tops and big collars and a wonderful line where a girl tells John, who is petting with her not to "rip her tights" - taking me back to a time when ripping your tights was something of a disaster. That might seem odd now - most people wear tights once and throw them away but things were different back then. The use of a green and yellow Glasgow bus was the icing on the cake for me - even if it is used in two of the more menacing scenes in the film - both of which are lacking in physical violence but dripping with malevolence.
The portrayal of 1970s school life is spot on too - apart from teachers openly smoking in class and a couple of wholly unrealistic speeches from some teachers to pupils they openly hold in disdain yet expect to understand their own frustrations. Steven Robertson turns in a wonderful performance as Mr Bonnetti, a teacher who seems to have his faith in his ability to teach irreparably damaged by John's insubordination in one scene - and when he uses the strap on John it is genuinely upsetting. Here we see a teacher's entire authority to teach the top stream class undermined by one pupil and losing his rag as a result.
The use of sarcasm and humiliation to keep children in line by teachers is shown too, with a teacher waiting at the school doors for latecomers and then promising them a piggy back to the classroom. This reminds me of a teacher I had who instead of taking the quick and easy way out with classroom miscreants and simply using the strap, he would give the pupil a huge pile of books to hold and make them stand in a corner until the bell rang holding the pile. This kept the rest of the class on his side whilst making the errant pupil the butt of future jokes.
The most depressing observation of school life in the 1970s is the use of the Remedial department as a dumping ground for anyone who won't conform - whether that be because the are unable to or because they don't want to. I can remember the use of the Portacabins in my school and the Remedial classes held there (we called them "the huts") and how the pupils who were sent there were damned by their peers and by their teachers.
The last 30 minutes of the film do drag a bit - and the ending is one of those "intepret this any way you like" endings and as such is rather unsatisfactory. There is an element of punishment for John but not in the conventional sense as the film reaches its conclusion.
That's perhaps a small criticism. The naturalistic acting - particularly from McCarron but also from Gregg Forrest who plays a young John at the start of the film - is what kept me rapt. It's actually a joy to see a film where you aren't aware of someone acting per se - for me the vast majority of the cast were immersing themselves in their roles to such an extent they were living it. Mullan's own performance was perhaps the weakest link acting wise as he veered from tragi comic to mildy threatening to just downright pathetic. Of the whole cast he was the one who ironically seemed to be "acting" the most.
Finally there's some great use of 1970s music in the soundtrack, although the use of "Teenage Rampage" by the Sweet is perhaps a little predictable. You'll be more surprised by the scene which features "You Won't Find Another Fool Like Me" by the New Seekers which is wonderfully hallucinogenic.
It goes without saying that the BluRay gives a stunningly good picture quality. There are some special features on the disc, including a Peter Mullen Masterclass filmed at the BFI which is perhaps for fans only. I watched a bit of it but these kind of things aren't really my cup of tea.
Of more interest are the deleted scenes and in particular a scene which features John attending a baseball lesson at a summer school hosted by a Mr Holmes, who insists that he prefers only to be addressed by that name by "the polis" - insisting the kids can call him "Wee Malky" instead. It's an amusing scene which perfectly captures the enthusiasm of one adult in amongst the lethargy of the kids he is trying to teach.
Feature Length 119 minutes
Ratio 16 x 9 (2.35 : 1)
Audio 5.1 DTS/2.0 Stereo
Subtitles English SDH
"Neds" is a rewarding film but can be hard going at times. The Glasgow vernacular will be a problem for those who don't hail from the same part of the world as I do, but persevere - and use subtitles if required.
It's downfall is that Mullan doesn't quite know who to blame. He does seem to suggest the somewhat brutal education system that existed in Scotland in the 1970s is the biggest problem - and he shows teachers using the belt (or strap) on children with alarming regularity. I left school the year the belt was banned in Scotland so I can remember how some teachers were far more strap happy than others - a point highlighted by Mullan in the film.
Mullan does point to a generally unhappy homelife for John but he doesn't come from a really bad background with both his parents - including the alcoholic father - holding down jobs.
My biggest problem with "Neds" is that for all the realism, John's descent into mindless violence happens all too quickly and for reasons that seem to boil down to John wanting a friend and a sense of belonging. Mullan does stick in a bit of class warfare in the form of a snobbish middle class mother who wholly disapproves of John being friends with her son and seems to suggest her insistence John doesn't see her son anymore is the catalyst for his downfall. This is all a little hackneyed though.
If you can accept that "Neds" is a naturalistic portrayal of a section of Glasgow youth in the 1970s then you may have to try to overlook a few of these plot holes which might spoil that naturalistic illusion but overall it's worth the stretch.