February 25, 2017


Nil by Mouth – 1997 | 128mins | Drama | Colour


Plot Synopsis

Nil by Mouth

With the recent exception of Emily Watson’s Maggie and Daniel Day-Lewis‘s Danny Flynn in The Boxer, working-class people are consistently portrayed as craggy-faced, sullen, and just plain homely. Perhaps the hard life of physical work takes its toll, or maybe it’s just the lack of hope, the resignation, that reflects in their features. In Nil By Mouth, Gary Oldman‘s biographical drama of the actor’s childhood in the slums of South London, Oldman represents the brooding men he remembers as violent, drug-addicted, and foul- mouthed while his women are resigned, accepting, even loving in their own ways. While Nil By Mouth is not Gary Oldman‘s own family portrait, he has filled the screen with people he has known in his childhood and whom he looks upon with an patina of sympathy and understanding despite their profane manner and primitive culture.

Nil By Mouth, which was a selection of the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and even supplied a best-actress win for Kathy Burke, is not what anyone would call narrative-driven. Its chief merit is as a showcase for some remarkable acting talent – its principal characters absolutely believable in their rage, desperation, and ultimately their fondness and warmer side. Its lavish disregard for plot, however, makes this a difficult film to sit through, as it cannot be said to have a real dramatic arc and, what’s more, those behaviours which are exhibited are perfectly predictable. This latter deficiency is on display particularly in the opening half-hour, in which Oldman wants to impress on every member of the audience the ambiance of the South London district of his childhood. Focusing particularly on Raymond (Ray Winstone), who has no regular job but apparently acquires his pound sterling’s through a network of scams, Oldman opens with a family scene as the locals gather in a downscale night club to be entertained by a comedian imparting bawdy jokes to a crowd that alternately pays him an ear and tell jokes of their own to their family circles. Ray, his wife Valerie (Kathy Burke), and Valerie’s brother-in-law Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) smoke up a storm, drink Smirnoff’s vodka, and when the men sit around without their women they discuss their experiences in strip joints with all the enthusiasm of adolescents who have just acquired their legal ID’s and sample the fare of the adult world.

We learn quite a bit about these people but little or nothing about the framework that has mired them in their futile straits. Ray is the most violent member of the group, one who looks for excuses to swing his fists. In the picture’s most appalling moments, he punches and kicks his wife, accusing her with no evidence whatever of having an affair with a neighbour. When Valerie lands in the hospital, she follows the neighbourhood code – mum’s the word – and claims to have been knocked over by a hit-and-run driver. In another episode of mayhem, Ray virtually breaks the nose of his brother-in-law, Billy, whom he accuses of robbing his cache of drugs. In one unexpected setting, Ray’s mother-in-law Janet (Laila Morse) looks without disgust on his snorting of drugs, even providing money to maintain the wastrel’s habit – anything to keep the family together, particularly since her daughter is pregnant.

An American audience – and perhaps an upscale English crowd – may have difficulty with the dialect spoken by these folks, which appears to challenge Trainspotting for the most unintelligible dialogue and would provide a lifetime of work for Professor Henry Higgins should he have the unlikely bad fortune of being employed by them. Nil By Mouth would probably have more success on the legitimate stage. Oldman has not opened up his film too much to show give us a neighbourhood ambiance but hones in on the indoor locations favoured by this group of people who are going nowhere fast. The upbeat ending is a bit of a surprise: we wonder if Ray and the woman he hospitalized have truly reconciled or whether Oldman is merely providing us with a contrast to all the bleakness in order to demonstrate what might have been if only…

Kathy Burke’s modulated performance is the item to watch. While Ray Winstone in the role of Valerie’s husband, can send the celluloid ablaze with his tempestuous fury, Ms. Burke’s rendition of an abused wife who fears separation more than anything else is the three-dimensional portrait that redeems the otherwise predictable and altogether flaccid narrative.

Review Harvey S. Karten

Production Team

Gary Oldman: Director
Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski: Art Direction
Luana Hanson: Art Direction
Marc Frydman: Associate Producer
Mary Soan: Asst Director
Neil Tuohy: Asst Director
Kate Hazell: Asst Director
Finn McGrath: Asst Director
Ron Fortunato: Cinematography
Douglas Urbanski: Co-Producer
Gary Oldman: Co-Producer
Hilary Heath: Co-Producer
Barbara Kidd: Costume Design
Brad Fuller: Editing
Fae Hammond: Make-Up
Eric Clapton: Original Music
Luc Besson: Producer
Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski: Production Design
Michael Dreyer: Production Manager
Gary Oldman: Script
Jim Greenhorn: Sound


Edna Dore: Kath
Ray Winstone: Ray
Kathy Burke: Valery
Charlie Creed-Miles: Billy
Laila Morse: Janet
Chrissie Cotterill: Paula
Jon Morrison: Angus
Jamie Forman: Mark

blog comments powered by Disqus