Thursday, June 23, 2011

From Britain with Love: NEDS

The 1970’s were a decade of malaise and recession for the United Kingdom. Economic conditions were particularly bad in Scotland. For the uneducated and unskilled youth, the outlook was downright bleak. Young John McGill joins their delinquent ranks in Peter Mullan’s NEDS, which screens today as part of the From Britain with Love touring showcase at the IFC Center.

McGill was studious lad with aspirations of a journalism career in America. Perversely, his own teachers do their concerted best to stifle his ambition and self-esteem. Though he plugs away for a while, peer pressure finishes the job started by the leveling educational system. Eventually acquiescing to social realities, McGill seeks acceptance amongst the semi-organized gangs of NEDs, Non-Educated Delinquents. Of course, he hardly gets any positive reinforcement at home, but at least his absent elder brother Benny’s street cred greases his entrée into the hooligan life.

NEDS is a tragic film about the sheer waste of not just McGill’s potential but that of his contemporaries. It is a story very much of it time and place, where social mobility was discouraged from below just as much as from above (if not more so). Still, its inclusion in a showcase of British cinema (featuring the Union Jack in its logo) might be a tad controversial for many Scots, including the majority Scottish National Party.

Be that as it may, NEDS creates a strong sense of depressed 1970’s Glasgow with seamless period detail. While the “husky” Conor McCarron must be dashed big for fourteen, he is convincingly sullen and resentful. However, Mullan himself leaves the film’s most indelible impression as McGill alcoholic father. An abusive and broken man, his turn as the senior McGill is not a pretty picture, but it is a very human one.

Despite the fine performances (as characters who often seem as if they would be at home in Frederick Wiseman social welfare documentary), NEDS largely covers familiar ground. Mullan (currently best known for directing The Magdalene Sisters and his lead performance in Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe, but soon to be seen in Deathly Hollows part two) can definitely stage a rumble, but there are no surprises to be found in his naturalistic amorality tale.

Essentially, viewers will probably take away from NEDS just how badly the UK needed a middle class green grocer’s daughter to take the reins of government in 1979 (though one supposes this was hardly the intention). Respectable but never extraordinary, NEDS screens tonight (6/23) at the IFC Center and next Saturday (7/2) at the Howard Gilman Theater in the brand new and shiny Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.