Why 'Neds' deserves awards (but probably won't win them)

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Don't let Peter Mullan's brilliant 'Neds' pass you by among the rush of more shiny Bafta contenders, says Dave Calhoun, who meets the film's unassuming 17-year-old star

This month sees an embarrassment of riches on our screens as the nation’s distributors push, shove and elbow each other out of the way to release their more prestigious films before the February 11 deadline which allows their films to qualify as contenders for the Baftas. Some films of the likes of ‘127 Hours’, ‘The King’s Speech’ and ‘True Grit’ will triumph, but most will not – and some filmmakers will be left wondering whether it was worth joining the fray in the first place, especially if punters flock to see their rivals’ films instead.

One film which will inevitably be passed over by Bafta voters in favour of more slick or easily digestible work is Peter Mullan’s ‘Neds’ (subtitled ‘Non-Educated Delinquents’), which suffered the same fate at last month’s unusually conservative British Independent Film Awards. Even if ‘Neds’ misses out on prizes, it would be a huge shame if audiences also missed out on this daring British film simply because it was drowned out by all the shouting and waving of awards season.

Neds’ is 51-year-old Scottish actor Peter Mullan’s third film as a writer-director after ‘Orphans’ and ‘The Magdalene Sisters’, and like those earlier films and much of Mullan’s work in front of the camera in films such as ‘My Name Is Joe’, it’s tough and uncompromising. It’s a difficult film to categorise or even love: it has a dark heart and an unflinching gaze and flirts boldly with realism and fantasy (although leaning mostly towards the former) in telling the story of John, a young teen in early 1970s Glasgow who falls in with a hard-nut crowd at school while at the same time being failed by a fractured family and inept school (portrayed so absurdly that it recalls Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If…’). Mullan himself plays John’s alcoholic father, and his near-silent performance is as terrifying as the scene in which John ties knives to his hands and hits the streets.

In keeping with the film’s authentic air – it doesn’t overdo the period touches and its language hasn’t been softened for middle England – Mullan cast the film from open auditions in Glasgow. That’s how he found young Conor McCarron, from the Pollok area of the city, who plays John in all but the opening scenes of ‘Neds’ as he transforms from a top-stream pupil to a knife-wielding, bullying aggressor who terrorises Glasgow’s estates.

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I met McCarron – now 17, but only 16 when he shot the film in summer 2009 – when he travelled to London in November. McCarron was still at school when he auditioned in April 2009. When he then landed the part, he kept it secret from his friends. ‘I didn’t tell many people at first,’ he remembers. ‘Then I started telling  a few, and only because of my hair. It was so long and I never let my hair get long – in my school, you’d get banged up for having hair like that.’

Blunt and down to earth, McCarron is no stage-school kid: he’s not acted before and drama at his school was just an excuse, he says, ‘to have a chat with your mates’. He has since quit school and is doing a course in thermal insulation. ‘I started two months ago. It’s part time, something to fall back on in case I don’t get offers. But I’m dying to continue acting.’

When I spoke to Mullan last year, he hoped that ‘Neds’ would speak to audiences about the modern world as much as about the 1970s: ‘I wanted to take a little leaf out of the Brechtian book and by setting it in recent history perhaps we can take a step back and look at things today a little more clearly.’

I ask McCarron if he feels the same about the film’s relevance. ‘It can happen,’ he says of its story. ‘It can happen all over the world.’ He doesn’t mention it when we meet, but it emerged only last week in the Scottish press that McCarron has his own experience of knife crime: his dad was sentenced last August to a minimum of 18 years for stabbing a man to death in a bar.
It puts in sad context McCarron’s winning of the Best Actor award at last September’s San Sebastian Film Festival. Needless to say, Mullan was thrilled for him: ‘I was dead pleased for Conor. He was 15 when he auditioned, 16 when he did that part and now he’s 17 and he wins one of the biggest prizes on Planet Earth. It’s incredible.’

While he waits to see whether ‘Neds’ is a one-off or the beginning of a career, McCarron wants the film to open in cinemas so that his peers can see why he was sneaking away from school in 2009. ‘That’s something that’s been driving me insane for the past year. I’m dying for it to come out. I want my friends’ views. I want to know what people think, especially in Glasgow. I want it to hurry up and get to January.’



Read our review of 'Neds'

Author: Dave Calhoun



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