Kudos to Peter Mullan for this fine bit of history and excellent social commentary.
If you were lucky enough to see Peter Mullan’s simmering indie hit “The Magdalene Sisters” you know this is one serious director. He is not afraid to tackle the gritty subjects and this film is as gritty as they get. Returning to the 1970’s Glasgow of this youth, Mullan tells the story of young John McGill (Conor McCarron).
McGill grows up in very tough circumstances on the wrong side of the tracks in one of the toughest cities in the world (at least at that time, if not today). His father is a classic violent alcoholic, his mother is an emotional wreck and his older brother is the Scottish version of Billy the Kid.
Starting life as a bright boy with a good mind and a positive outlook, social forces combine to drive McGill into the farthest reached of human indignity, outrage and violence. Like many around him, he will soon attain the permanent identity of a non-educated delinquent; a NED.
Writer/director Mullan assembled the characters for this story as composites taken directly from his experience in the city. He describes the story as “personal but not autobiographical.”
The film displays striking historical accuracy that makes it a thrill to watch for anyone with a scrap of historical curiosity. It is a fascinating look at 1970’s big city life in the UK that resonates vibrantly for all who grew up in the over-heating urban milieu of the 1960s and 1970s.
Beyond the history, the movie is a probing investigation into class isolation and institutionalized poverty and ignorance. As in “Magdalene Sisters” Mullan wants to bring the light of day to bear on political repression and the inexplicable cruelty of man to man. “Sisters” was about forced imprisonment and slave labor executed by the Catholic Church.
NEDs is about the de facto enslavement of a portion of the population that apparently has been condemned by society to remain at working class levels and below forever.
There is no question the characters are exaggerated; this is necessary to get the message across. Not only are they composites but they are composites with exaggerated bad features. John’s grade school teacher and principal are not just pedantic control freaks; they are human devils from hell.
They seem determined to kill their students even if they kill themselves in the process. The neighborhoods are crawling with sadistic gangs who make a profession of beating and robbing everybody who walks by.
Therefore, there are parts of this film that demand a little judgment. Not all of Glasgow was like this, any more than 1950’s New York was one huge “West Side Story.” Having said that, the film makes a vitally important point.
The point is that all humans, everywhere, will rise to expectations. McGill not only grows up disadvantaged, he does so in the shadow of his psychotic older brother. His teachers hate him from the moment they see his name on the class roster. Expecting the worst from the boy, they proceed to execute the self-fulfilling prophecy.
The cross hairs of Mullan’s scathing social commentary sweep across the school system, public officials and into the homes of the prosperous middle class of Glasgow. When John develops a friendship with a boy from a higher social class that friendship is ended by the boy’s parents. They end the relationship because they are afraid for their son, unwittingly aiding the institutionalization of the cycle of social maladjustment.
This film is all the more remarkable in its realism for Mullan’s casting of unknown, inexperienced actors. The kids are still kids so their acting is realistic from the start. Searching out the old neighborhoods of the city, the director is able to recreate adolescent life on the streets with stirring accuracy.
Starting out with some 300 auditions, Mullan garnered eighty percent of the cast from unknowns. He created a “fight club” for eight weeks before filming to teach the kids how to pull off convincing fist and knife attacks on screen.
With the exception of a minor bump and a small cut there were no injuries suffered in the making of the film. Watching the film, this is hard to believe.
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Directed and Written by: Peter Mullan
Starring: Conor McCarron, Mhairi Anderson and Martin Bell
Release Date: Tribeca Film Festival Premier April 20, 2011
MPAA: Not rated
Runtime: 124 minutes
Country: UK / France / Italy