Saturday, September 25, 2010
San Sebastián: NEDS
[No major plot spoilers, as long as you know it's about non-educated delinquents. Which is the title acronym.]
Watching Peter Mullan's Neds at a Spanish-subtitled screening in San Sebastián's Teatro Principal was an experience both electrifying and frustrating in ways an immediate tweet-response and grade can't really take into account, so I'm glad I've had the benefit of a few days and an unexpectedly epic homebound journey to ponder it further, particularly since it's now been awarded the Best Film and Best Actor awards. I remain thoroughly on the film's side, some clearly wobbly sequences notwithstanding, but an especially tricky problem was posed by the sound: this soft Southerner struggles to comprehend thick Scottish accents at the best of times, but every single English-speaking viewer I bumped into afterwards had the same complaint about huge quantities of mumbled Glaswegian slang falling by the wayside. (Trust me, the leeway Mullan gives his locally-sourced actors in this makes Trainspotting sound like An Ideal Husband.) There were insults and laugh-lines only the local viewers found hilarious, thanks to the benefit of being able to read the Spanish — if it weren't for the embarrassment, I'd have turned to my neighbours and asked "What was that uproarious thing he just said?" more times than I was able to count. Though the Principal's acoustics may have been partly to blame, my strong hunch is that Mullan will be asked to subtitle the movie for English (and surely American) audiences too; I think it's customary to find this silly or appalling, but in this case I actively look forward to catching it a second time and being able to relish all the rude catcalls and bits of bullying invective I missed, on top of the many excellent scenes that rang out loud and clear.
That initial tweet reaction ("messy but inspired") is still roughly where I'm at, but inspiration and mess tend to go hand in hand here: the film has superb, sustained passages which jostle right up against chunks of stuff that plain don't work. Everyone will draw their own conclusions about the following: the whole last act, dramatically choppy and schizoid in ways that bothered me less than the too-organised flaggy allegory of Shane Meadows's This is England, to which it's already being compared; the ostentatiously metaphorical final sequence, which I'm still mulling over; slightly earlier and even bolder, a druggy, go-for-broke encounter with a kick-ass manifestation of Christ; and Mullan's own supporting performance as the main character's permanently wasted, abusive father, a fierce and gurning turn which is right on the edge of being simply too much.
Then again, Mullan's best work as a director is almost always dancing on this very precipice. For every viewer who mentally checked out of The Magdalene Sisters when Eileen Walsh started shouting "You are naart a man of Gaard!", I know someone else who thinks it's the film's bravest and most brilliant coup. What's particularly outstanding here is the school stuff, and there's a (very) good hour of this. The journey of John McGill from milksop swot to vicious sociopath, charted through jagged phases that I believed far more palpably than the textbook conversion of Shaun in the Meadows film, is quietly tragic and unobtrusively affecting: we watch his intelligence curdle, this bright, diligent mind reorient itself to discover a kind of animal cunning. Neds never feels like lecturing sociology, serving up the mitigating circumstances to explain why John falls in with the ASBO crowd. It's significant that he hardly spends any time with his older brother Benny (Joe Szula), a notorious wrong 'un, because Mullan consistently keeps them at arm's length, more interested in the disparities between these siblings, in age, interests and scholarly drive, than the temperamental common ground forced on them by domestic circumstances. "Problems at home" may not have been so specifically dramatised since Nil By Mouth, albeit in a glancing, intentionally banal way here. The repeated shots of Mullan hollering at his wife from the base of the stairs have a harsh, lurid, debatably overacted menace, but he's even scarier as this faceless, disarticulated presence moving through rooms, violently opening drawers, a dark midriff passing silently behind the dinner table. It's entirely apropos that we want to spend as little time in this fearful household as humanly possible.
At school, Mullan resists any tempting Magdalene urge to ham up an ensnaring sense of institutional oppression. It's a place of apathy, mockery, and just muddling along, which is nonetheless desperately likely to fail all its students (and indeed staff) in offhand yet brutally life-altering ways. John, played as an uncertain youngster by Gregg Forest, fights his bookish little corner to begin with, but Mullan only needs a judicious moment for a forward jump and older actor (Connor McCarron, the gong-winner) to suggest what has changed, a certain light that's gone out, a hardening against the idea of being exceptional in the herd. Among the various teachers, played with chippy charm by Crying with Laughter's Stephen McCole, whose wrong side you would not want to see, ineffectual palliness by David McKay in a terrific one-scene cameo, and Gary Lewis, whose introduction, offering John a piggy-back through the school's main entrance, is a bizarre and unsettlingly deadpan tour de force, the most significant is Mr Bonetti (Steven Robertson), who welcomes John into Latin lessons and has wily methods of encouragement which carry frequent risks of backfiring. Robertson's scenes are almost unfailingly the film's best, I think, not only because his performance, as the most guardedly optimistic character, has places to go the other supporting turns lack, but because Mullan builds him into the pivotal moment when John conclusively turns his back on academic ambition, throwing this kindly, exasperated mentor to the wolves when he calculates what classroom cred he can gain from an act of insolent insurrection. McCarron is at his strongest here too, stepping up to a level of performative cockiness pitched carefully to John's peers — he manages to combine wicked assurance with shrugging indifference, and win the fight hands down.
The patchier second half never reaches these formidable peaks, though two scenes on a bus come close. John steals money from a driver at knife-point, a charged, indelible, oddly intimate encounter that lasts mere seconds, and later taunts his posh ex-friend Julian (Martin Bell) from the seat behind, cruelly flicking the ear of a black companion he's never met, and whose only moment in the film this is. Anyone who has ever sat through an uncomfortable or hostile experience on British public transport will feel the excruciating power and precision of that flick, more for the point it's proving than the token pain caused: it made me wince more than any of the all-out scenes of Clockwork Orange-esque gang beatings, the scrabblings with knives in school bathrooms, or the clonking of a character on the head with a loose gravestone, acute though Mullan's staging control often is in these outbursts. I don't want to dwell here on what's simply disorganised towards the end of Neds, which seems strangely unclear whether it's disappearing inside John's swirling head or backing away into abstract metaphor, because the limitations of the movie are easily the least interesting thing about it. What Mullan grasps here he grasps with clenched fists, and shakes often enough to sock his points home: that adolescent unhappiness and intellectual promise can be about the worst possible bedfellows, and the deadliest thugs, in another, more privileged life, might have been shoo-ins to Oxbridge. B+