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Nil By Mouth (1997)

Footage courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Main image of Nil By Mouth (1997)
35mm, colour, 128 mins
DirectorGary Oldman
Production CompaniesSE8 Group, Smoking Room
ProducersLuc Besson
 Douglas Urbanski
 Gary Oldman
ScreenplayGary Oldman
PhotographyRon Fortunato
MusicEric Clapton

Cast: Ray Winstone (Raymond); Kathy Burke (Valerie); Charlie Creed-Miles (Billy); Laila Morse (Janet); Edna Doré (Kath); Chrissie Cotterill (Paula)

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On a council estate in south east London, a dysfunctional working-class family encounters domestic violence, drunkenness, drug addiction and petty crime.

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Gary Oldman established himself as one of the most exciting British actors of his generation with his electrifying performances in Mike Leigh's Meantime (1984), Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy (1986) and Alan Clarke's The Firm (1989). His subsequent Hollywood career has been more erratic, but for his first film as writer-director he returned to his roots in the working class New Cross area of South East London.

Nil by Mouth (1997) is not story-driven. Rather, it fixes an indelible authenticity of place and character in long (presumably improvised) dialogue scenes which have the ragged, spontaneous quality of observational documentary. Witness, for example, the opening ten-minute scene in the pub, where the men trade meandering, expletive-ridden anecdotes, while their wives, mothers and girlfriends sit in a different section of the room and attend to their own concerns. The only person who slips easily between the male and female worlds is Bill (Charlie Creed-Miles), younger brother to Val (Kathy Burke), whose domineering husband Ray (Ray Winstone) seems keen to take him under his wing - until his heroin habit gets in the way of business.

Unusually, Nil by Mouth takes an objective view of Bill's addiction - scenes in which his mum is forced to help him score are a long way from the hyped-up excitement of Danny Boyle's Trainspotting (1995) - and reserves its real anger for the abusive Ray, a pathologically jealous husband and alcoholic who beats the pregnant Val black and blue in the film's most harrowing scene. In a long, pathetic monologue to his friend Mark (Jamie Foreman), Ray explains the title metaphor, recalling a sign posted over his own alchoholic father's hospital bed: 'nil by mouth'. "Plenty went down there, but nothing good came out," he complains. While Ray is granted a hint of self-knowledge, it's hard not to think the cycle of abuse will continue.

A gruelling, uncompromising film, Nil by Mouth ends with the sobering dedication: "In memory of my father". Clearly influenced by the work of Alan Clarke - whose Scum (1979) was Winstone's most famous credit until this film relaunched his career - and by the American independent film-maker John Cassavetes, this stands as one of the most powerful and unfashionable British films of the 1990s. Ironically it was made entirely with French money, courtesy of Nikita (France/Italy, 1990) and The Fifth Element (France, 1997) director-producer Luc Besson.

Tom Charity

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Burke, Kathy (1964-)
Oldman, Gary (1958-)
Winstone, Ray (1957-)
Social Realism