NIL BY MOUTH, 1997
Directed by Gary Oldman
Starring: Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Charlie Creed-Miles, Laila Morse, Edna Doré, Chrissie Cotterill, Jon Morrison
Review by Russell Wray
The family of Raymond, his wife Val and her brother Billy live in working-class London district. Also in their family is Val and Billy’s mother Janet and grandmother Kath. Billy is a drug addict and Raymond kicks him out of the house, making him live on his own. Raymond is generally a rough and even violent person, and that leads to problems in the life of the family.
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In 1960 Albert Finney starred in Saturday Night Sunday Morning, a film which brought social realism to British Cinema. It stood out as it showed working class characters in extremely realistic scenarios. These characters usually struggled in their down and out positions in society. Saturday night Sunday Morning attempted to break stereotypes of working class people by showing them as intelligent and articulate youngsters. We fast forward almost forty years to see Gary Oldman bringing social realism back to the screen but with a much bleaker view for a modern audience.
The film focuses on the Raymond family in working class London. Raymond (Ray Winston) is the alpha male of the house hold. He is an aggressive alcoholic who is always out for a good time at the expense of someone else. Val (Kathy Burke) is the subservient wife who is victimised by her husband and does not have the strength to leave him. Their son Billy is a drug addict. He is forced to live on the street due to his father finding out about his addiction. Nil by mouth shows these characters struggle but is it their fault or the fault of their hierarchy in society?
Nil by mouth is a film about failures but there are not many to be seen here. The cinematography works brilliantly to provide beauty in the strangest of down and out places, the performances are terrifyingly accurate, and the direction is brilliantly constructed. The only problem is with the script.
The story may be a little bit too observant at times. The constant arguments and scenes of failure make it hard to maintain attention for some parts of the film as it almost slips into an x rated watershed soap opera. The film is relentless as there is not much comic relief provided. This is forgivable by the scenes which really stand out, such as Ray Winston on the lash with his mates.
This scene strangely forces the audience to relate to the characters playing drunken fools around town but also makes them scared of them at the same time. Oldman is not afraid of getting close to these characters. His frequent use of big close ups allows the audience to see every action and reaction from the characters in precise detail. Being an actor himself Oldman understands the importance of performance especially in an intense character which is presented here.
Winston is comfortably at home here playing the working class villain. The intensity of the character is evident but also the humanity is presented brilliantly by Winston who shines in those drunken moments in the film where he is on his own. Here Winston is allowed to bring the character to life as the audience witnesses his self destruction. Burke also offers an effective performance but is not as memorable as other characters because of the shy nature of the character in which she is playing.
Nil by mouth is an unflinchingly hopeless film. The characters are not taunted of a better life in anyway even though that is their desire. The film simply allows the characters to live without any feeling of pre constructed character arcs.