I guess I should really stop declaiming films as the best of the Festival until I get to the end, I’ve probably given that moniker to four or five so far (without even having the chance to review Meek’s Cutoff or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives yet), but having just seen Peter Mullan’s brilliantly realised third feature NEDS (after Orphans, 1997 and The Magdalene Sisters, 2002), I think I’m going to have to add another to that list. Tonally reminiscent of the work of Shane Meadows, Alan Clarke and Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth (1997), this brutal and often incredibly uncomfortable picture had me watching through my fingers throughout the final act, its scripting (by Mullan) and outstanding ensemble performances combining to ensure a true investment in the fate of its central protagonist.
We first meet John McGill (initially played by Gregg Forrest) as he begins secondary school, his studious nature at odds with both his surroundings and the reputation of his older brother Benny (Joe Szula), a notorious figure to the kids who hang around the neighbourhood. It’s a place of low expectations, gang warfare blighting opportunities for social or academic progression, the teachers for the most part as uninterested in the future of their students as the kids themselves, dishing out corporal punishment with the same abandon as John’s alcoholic father (an extraordinary turn from Mullan himself). Despite his early potential and focus, it’s not long before the older John (Conor McCarron) becomes drawn onto the path of nihilistic inevitability, seduced by the territoriality and weapon-obsessed machismo of the street culture of his surroundings, where the measure of a man (or boy) is his willingness to express himself through violence.
Much like his earlier picture Orphans, Mullan injects the miserably realist tone with flashes of dark humour, from the banter between the kids to more absurdist flourishes (Gary Lewis’ headmaster offering a piggy back to class when John arrives late on his first day) and less successful moments of hallucinatory abandon (Jesus descending from the cross to give John a good kicking), but for the most part its unwillingness to shy away from scenes of overwhelming brutality prove effective even with the occasional Kubrickian juxtaposition of image and music (the ironic use of Cheek To Cheek during a particularly vicious brawl nods to A Clockwork Orange).
McCarron is outstanding as the older John, both charismatic and repellent, it’s the measure of Mullan’s writing and his performance that even after his descent into psychosis we’re willing him if not towards redemption, then at least realisation, the three words whispered by his father over the dinner table near the end both heartbreaking and terrifying, leaving my heart firmly in my mouth.
The beautifully ambiguous final shot provides no easy answers as to John’s future, but on the evidence provided by Mullan over these two hours, this director’s as a voice of deftly realised honesty and fractured humanity is most certainly assured.
NEDS – 2010 – United Kingdom – 124 mins – Dir : Peter Mullan
Screening as the Time Out Gala at the London Film Festival on Wednesday 20th & Friday 22nd October. Tickets available at www.bfi.org.uk/lff