According to the film’s title sequence, NEDS stands for “non-educated delinquents”. I’m pretty sure that this is nonsense. There is an interesting debate about the origination of the term on the IMDB message boards and I take it to be a term equivalent in some way to ‘chav’ in England. Sociologist Alex Law in the Media Education Journal 39, Spring/Summer 2006/7, tells us that ‘schemie’, ‘tinkie’ or ‘gadgie’ are similar terms on the east coast of Scotland to compare with ‘neds’ on the west coast. I’m surprised that Peter Mullan as writer-director (and actor) would fall into this trap. Let’s just take it to be a term used by the middle (and lower-middle) classes to abuse working-class (white) male youth on housing estates. It may indeed have been in use in the 1970s when this film is set, but not based on this rather snotty acronym (one suggestion is that ‘Ned’ is another word for ‘Ted’, both nicknames for Edward, used to describe the ‘teddy boys’ of the 1950s).
Outline (no spoilers)
1972. John McGill is just about to leave primary school where he has been a star pupil. On the day of his school prize-giving he is threatened by a boy who is only marginally older. But John’s brother is Benny, a well-known gang-leader who soon takes revenge. John moves to the unreconstructed hell of the local Catholic high school where at first he seems to be an assertive but academically gifted student. But this doesn’t last. Eventually he is caught between the disruption at home caused by his mostly absent brother and alcoholic abusive father (Mullan) and the condescension of middle-class Glasgow. He falls in with a local gang. How will he survive?
I was completely with the film for the first half and then I gradually lost my faith in the narrative and I’m not sure why. I confess that I found the dialogue hard to follow. I’ve been familiar with it for brief periods throughout my life but I always need time to adjust to the sound of the Glaswegian voice. As a result, I’m sure that I missed some of the narrative cues contained in the dialogue. Whatever he is, John is not a ‘ned’, though some of the other characters may be. I realise that in writing that, I’m already abusing ‘neds’. So let me retract. John is a bright, intelligent boy who is insulted many times but somehow keeps his cool. Then he snaps. Perhaps that is the point that Mullan wants to make. Poverty, ignorance and a lack of ‘culture’ (in the broadest terms) saps your soul, especially when you are coralled by a strong but limited father and an authoritarian and stupid education system. You either give in to lassitude or you lose control. If that is the message of the narrative, it is a powerful indictment and is to be applauded.
But it isn’t as simple as that. Peter Mullan clearly still has issues about Catholic education and I have heard arguments that this is a narrative of redemption. I’m not that keen on this idea – it seems a very American take on resolving narratives. The resolution of NEDS is either ‘open’ or ‘closed’ depending on your view on the redemption scenario. I want to take it as ‘open’ – to the possibility that John might find himself again in later life without having to be ‘redeemed’.
As to the style of the film, I can’t remember Orphans, Mullan’s first film, that well and I haven’t seen The Magdalene Sisters. I’m therefore thrown back on Lynne Ramsay’s Glasgow-set feature, Ratcatcher and her shorts, Ken Loach’s Glasgow films and the comedies of Bill Forsyth. Casting connects this film to Loach and Laverty’s My Name is Joe (1998) in which Peter Mullan is also paired with Louise Goodall. Gary Lewis appears in that film as well and in Orphans. (IMDB fails to give the full cast list of NEDS.) But I think it is Ratcatcher (1999) (also set in the 1970s) which offers links to the fantasy sequences in NEDS. (The importance of Glasgow buses in the narrative links the film to Ratcatcher and Loach’s Carla’s Song.) The other, English rather than Scottish, links are to Alan Clarke and Shane Meadows. I did think, going into the film, that I was going to see something similar to Scum (at least from the trailer). However, I don’t think that NEDS has the relentless drive of Scum or the two strong performances at the centre of that film (Ray Winstone and Mick Ford). That isn’t necessarily a criticism of NEDS. Conor McCarron in the central role of the older John gave a stand-out performance – even if not all the critics thought so (Gregg Forrest is also good as the younger John). This Is England seems somehow more optimistic and lighter – despite its harrowing final sequence. All of these films are ‘youth pictures’ and associated with the idea of ‘coming of age’.
Overall, NEDS is an interesting film, well worth anyone’s time and I suspect that with further acquaintance I might get even more from it. It manages to tell us something about the lives of working-class boys in urban Britain. I presume that it will be dubbed or subtitled for North America.