It would have been very easy for Neds to be just another grim tale of adolescent violence, but with Peter Mullan behind the camera, you're guaranteed something out of the ordinary. Mullan's two features to date – the pitch-black comedy Orphans and his passionate drama The Magdalene Sisters – have shown him to be a filmmaker with an eye for realistic detail but one with the imagination to let his material take off in unanticipated ways, and that sense of adventure energises Neds. His film is a vibrant portrait of a young man's attempt to carve out a decent future for himself, and it's also a study of the class consciousness and social constraints that thwart his aspirations, forcing him to become the Non-Educated Delinquent that everyone expects someone from his family and background to be. "You want a Ned?" John McGill roars before committing one act of vandalism, "I'll give you a fucking Ned!"
At the start of the film, however, John looks set for a bright future. Still in primary school when we first meet him, John (first played by Gregg Forrest) is bright and hard-working, determined to make the most of his opportunities at school and make his mother proud in the process. His only brush with youth violence occurs when he is threatened by a bully, but the intervention of his older brother – a much-feared presence on the Glasgow streets – ensures his protection. Mullan depicts education as a way out for working-class kids like John, but he also shows us John being viewed as a swot for desiring promotion to a better class, or being singled out and embarrassed by his teacher, in a mortifying scene, for getting a perfect score on his test. The key turning point for John appears to come a couple of years later, when he (now played by the imposing figure of Conor McCarron) befriends a middle-class boy at school. He is taken home to meet the boy's parents, but his mother spends the whole lunch snobbishly looking down her nose at John, and after this painful rejection, John spends the subsequent summer months veering towards a life of wayward rebellion.
Neds simmers with violence throughout, and it feels constantly ready to explode. When it does so, Mullan ensures it is swift and damaging; the numerous skirmishes between knife-wielding gangs carry a savage edge, and one particular attack, in which Conor gets revenge against his childhood tormentor, is one of the coldest and most unsettling depictions of a brutal assault that you'll see on screen. McCarron, making his acting debut here, has the hulking presence of a young Ray Winstone, but he can play both anger and vulnerability, and he is equally adept at depicting the moments in which Conor looks lost and scared. Throughout Neds, Mullan draws outstanding performances from the young non-actors he has cast in key roles, with all of them giving authentic and compelling displays, while the older members of the ensemble give riper turns. Gary Lewis has a terrific cameo as a blustering headmaster who delights in humiliating any tardy students, while Mullan himself plays John's father, a drunken boor who stands at the foot of the stairs howling threats at his timid wife.
Mullan's cameo is just on the verge of being cartoonish, and the director always appears to be running the risk of pushing things too far. That's part of what makes Neds such a fascinating picture to watch, though, and it's what makes it such an absorbing experience. The director isn't scared of imbuing his gritty social realism with vivid flights of fancy, and he successfully takes Neds in some unexpected directions in its final third, with a Bad Lieutenant-style vision of Christ or a nightmarish sequence in which John becomes a tooled-up avenger. As outré as such decisions may appear, Mullan makes them all feel part of the same consistent vision, and while the blend of fantasy and reality may alienate viewers left unbalanced by such abrupt tonal shifts, this director is not someone who is willing to compromise.
That lack of compromise will probably mean Neds will never find the audience it deserves to, and I wonder if it's the reason behind the egregious snubbing of the film by BAFTA, who completely overlooked it when they announced their awards contenders recently? That the British Academy (who nominated American imports Black Swan and The Social Network 12 and 6 times respectively) have failed to offer any support to such a bold piece of homegrown filmmaking is a travesty, and a prime example of what's wrong with the film industry in this country. People can crow all they like about the success of The King's Speech, but while that picture might be hogging the attention and hoovering up awards, the public needs to know that this is British cinema at its most daring and exciting.