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Movies: Neds * * *

As both actor and director, Peter Mullan has tended to gravitate towards dark tales of abuse, addiction and the enduring woes of an oppressed underclass.

Neds, his first film since The Magdalene Sisters, is no exception, but it's also easily his most autobiographical work to date.

During a troubled youth, Mullan ran for a time with a Glasgow street gang, and the story of John McGill seems to mirror his own. When we first meet him, John is a bright, working-class boy who's been first in his class for years, but when he enters senior school things start to change.

As a result of a brutally random first-day selection, John is condemned to the B class, where the sneering attitude of his teacher unleashes a seething rage. In an atmosphere dominated by sarcasm and corporal punishment, he loses interest in Latin and begins to gravitate towards the violence that's all around him -- even at home. John's father is a bitter and defeated husk of a man who takes out his frustrations on his wife and children. When John drifts into street fighting he turns out to have a flair for it, and finds that while he was despised as a scholar, his new warrior status has won him admiration and respect.

With a soundtrack including the likes of Sweet and T-Rex, Neds memorably but unsentimentally evokes the grim swagger of 70s Glasgow. Among Mullan's themes seems to be the notion that if people are treated like an underclass they'll behave accordingly, but the film's most powerful idea is its depiction of violence as a kind of virus, a virulent sickness that spreads exponentially and withers and deadens everything it touches.

Newcomer Conor McCarron is excellent in the lead role, and Mullan is absolutely riveting as John's pathetic father. Neds becomes a little muddled towards the end and suffers almost from a surfeit of ideas, but it's a fine, absorbing and unflinchingly honest piece of film-making.

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