Big fun in London in this dark tale of modernist dispair…
Ray has a shirt with an Yves Saint-Laurent logo and a scar on his back like tire tracks. At 30, his wife, Valerie, looks like she gave up trimming her hair at 28. Her eyes are sunken; her cheeks, puffed out from the time Ray kicked her in the head. Her brother Billy’s nose is swollen now, the color of a rotting eggplant.
Ray bit a chunk out of it the morning some of his drugs were missing and his brother-in-law happened to be in the flat.
Afterward, everyone except Billy laughed to hear Janet say he had a clown’s nose. Short, blond and pug-faced, Janet was the one who gave birth to Valerie and Billy and so, understandably, tries to see the bright side – a trait that comes in handy when her son shoots up heroin in the back of her van, or her own mother pipes up and has to be told, "Get indoors, Mummy, you nosy fucking cow."
For those who think Mike Leigh has become a merchant of fairy tales, Gary Oldman presents Nil By Mouth, his debut film as a writer-director. It is a slice of English working-class life so thick and raw it ought better to be called a slab. Shot mostly with a hand-held camera in claustrophobia-inducing close-ups, with the actors’ faces perpetually wrapped in a soundtrack of South London yammer and ambient noise, the film plays as a SenSurround trip into one family’s little hell.
Many minutes go by on this excursion before you see a true establishing shot. After many fragmented moments – views of faces, pub tables, street corners, a launderette, usually photographed so that large, out-of-focus objects keep intruding before the lens – you get your first clear image of the setting. And having seen it, you understand why you needn’t have bothered.
The characters in Nil By Mouth live in a Brutalist housing complex made up of a horizontal block and a vertical block smashed down in stubbly fields. Even the light of dawn looks dimly fluorescent in this place. The local translation of "a stroll outdoors" means a trip across a concrete bridge connecting the narrow green hallway in one block to a narrow ocher one in the other. So you’re thrown back on the characters, as they’re thrown back on themselves.
Does Oldman ramble in telling their story? Is his movie a little baggy? Well, these lives aren’t what you’d call shapely. They’re mostly about violence, visited from father to son unto the fourth generation, with by-blows for all the women along the way. Coming to this theme from a career as an actor – a remarkable one – Oldman understandably wants to slosh around in the human material. He is as generous as a Cassavetes toward each member of his cast and as a reward gets performances of unwavering conviction.
Kathy Burke, who plays Valerie, won the prize for best actress at the 1997 Cannes festival and really is stunning – though it seems unfair to single her out. Let me also mention, at a minimum, Ray Winstone as Ray, Charlie Creed-Miles as Billy and Laila Morse, a first-time actress, as Janet, all of whom make Nil By Mouth feel at times like a documentary.
But for all of Oldman’s concentration on character, he’s also been crafty enough to twist the narrative just enough to keep you alert. From the setup, you’d expect Nil By Mouth to trace the downward path of young Billy, from scuffling junkie (who begs in the subway and shoots up right on the street) to prison inmate or corpse.
You would not be mistaken.
You might be caught off-guard, though, when the film swerves away from Billy to become the story of Valerie and her struggles with Ray. When it does so, you might expect Ray to beat her, and again you would not be mistaken. But you might be surprised to find Nil By Mouth dwelling on precisely the part of the story a more conventional film would gloss over: weeks of physical and emotional recovery, and the relationships among Valerie and all the women in her family.
And the most surprising, upsetting touch of all? There’s a happy ending, or what passes for one in this context-a scene of good cheer bought at such a price that it leaves you wanting to scream.
See Nil By Mouth for the sake of watching Kathy Burke, in the rain, talking about being worn out at 30; Charlie Creed-Miles rifling desperately through a flat, scrabbling for drugs or the money to get them, to the accompaniment of an Eric Clapton soundtrack; Ray Winstone swilling vodka and blurting "I love you" to a blank wall, since his character can’t say it to any living being.
Stay away if you’re unwilling for a warm family scene to make your hair stand on end.