Nil By Mouth Review
After suffering through thirty years of cinematic lectures on the state of the nation from Ken Loach and a similar collection of sermons from Mike Leigh, I wasn’t exactly excited at the prospect of Nil By Mouth. Two hours of alcoholism, wife-beating, drug addiction and general despair didn’t sound like a great deal of fun (especially as I’d just wallowed in John Woo’s marvellously amusing guilty pleasure FaceOff). Indeed, as I walked in to see it, back in 1997, I was convinced that Gary Oldman’s debut couldn’t possibly have anything new to say and I went into mourning for the wasted evening. Two and a half hours later, I was in a state of shock. Nil By Mouth doesn’t say anything unusual or original but it’s a work of such visceral force and emotional depth that it’s hard to believe that it could come from the same man who had, a few months earlier, been happily hamming his way through The Fifth Element. Seven years on, it’s still one of the most powerful and disturbing films I have ever seen – and for once, that really isn’t hyperbole.
There isn’t a great deal of plot. The film is set in South London and concerns an extended family, headed by the violently alcoholic Ray (Winstone) and his pregnant wife Valerie (Burke). Their stormy relationship is examined in detail, as is the drug addiction of Val’s brother Billy (Creed-Miles) and the desperate, self-deluded attempts of Val and Billy’s mother Janet (Morse) to keep things on an even keel. The increasingly violent situation is observed, mutely, by Ray and Val’s daughter Michelle (Leah Fitzgerald ) and, not so mutely, by grandma Kath (Dore).
Basically, the film functions as a series of variations on the theme of addiction. Gary Oldman’s probing script isn’t content to fall into the old clichés of the desperate family cowed by the vicious alcoholic. This may not immediately be apparent because Ray’s brutality, both verbal and physical, towards his wife and Billy is unflinchingly depicted. His vocabulary consists largely of the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’, interspersed with self-pitying diatribes and abusive rants aimed at anyone who happens to get in his way. Oldman keeps the physical abuse of Val off-screen for a good part of the film, knowing that her stooped walk as she grimaces at the pain of an unseen beating and the tell-tale black eyes and bruises will allow us to fill in the gaps for ourselves.
Then suddenly, almost too fast for us to prepare, the violence explodes. After Val, six months pregnant, has been enjoying herself, playing pool with a male friend, Ray hauls her out of bed and subjects her to an assault which is so horrible that it’s very hard to sit through. Once he’s accused her of adultery and whinged about his own perceived humiliation, he knocks her to the ground. Then he repeatedly kicks her while screaming what a cunt she is. The next morning, she has a miscarriage. In one sense, this is a relief because we know that it will get her out of the marriage. But it’s also so realistic and believable that the rest of the film can’t quite match it, although it nearly does in a scene which follows. Valerie has gone to her mother’s with her daughter and has refused to see Ray. Her husband, giving up after trying to frighten her into returning home, sits in his house and comes out with an extraordinary monologue. It’s extraordinary for two reasons; firstly because it’s so perceptive and gives real meaning to the apparently clever-clever ironic title; secondly, because it gives Ray Winstone a chance to do the best acting he’s ever done. Winstone has been badly used in some films, his bulk and accent providing the whole character for us. But he can also do beautiful, subtle things as his supporting turn as the cookery-obsessed gangster in Ripley’s Game demonstrated. Here, he is simply remarkable in his range and sensitivity. We can despise Ray but we can’t quite damn him to hell because Winstone shows us the deformed, terminally damaged soul of the monster. After his explosion at his wife, he sits in the flat and talks rubbish to a broken mirror, the distortion of the face reflecting the shattered spirit. It’s a daring, sad scene, topped by the touch of writing “My baby” on the wall in his own blood. But the monologue which follows is something else. Ray talks about his father, about the emotional starvation he and his family suffered at the hands of an abusive alcoholic parent, and he describes seeing him in hospital at the end of his life, with a sign above the head saying “nil by mouth”.
I remembered that day, because I could've put that on his fucking tombstone, you know? Because I don't remember one kiss, you know, one cuddle. Nothing. I mean, plenty went down, not a lot came out, you know, nothing that was any fucking good. And I'd look at this man that I call Dad, you know? My father, I knew him as Dad. He was my fucking dad but he weren't like other kids' dads, you know? It was as if the word itself were enough, and it ain't.
If Ray can be redeemed, as the final scenes set at Christmas suggest he can, then it’s because of this single moment of self-realisation. Admittedly, there’s a Laingian simplicity here, the words of Larkin ringing in our ears – “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” – but Winstone and Oldman have an almost biblical compassion here, an understanding of the sad, confused child inside a terrible, horrifying man. It’s remarkably powerful acting and one of the great monologues in film history, up there with Brando’s speech to his wife’s corpse in Last Tango In Paris.
But the theme of addiction which runs through the film goes beyond alcoholism. Most obviously it is explored through the character of Billy. Here, the film does seem to be breathing the stale air of a hundred tragic characters fucked up on heroin, but Charlie Creed-Miles is very affecting as Billy. He does all the expected highs and lows but his eagerness for the acceptance of those around him is genuinely touching and there’s a lovely scene where he gives money to his much-abused mother and tries to pretend that he doesn’t love her and need her as much as he does. But Billy and Ray are not the only addicts in the movie. Janet, the mother who gives her son money to buy heroin so he doesn’t have to steal and go to prison, is addicted to the idea that love for one’s family means giving them whatever they want as long as it will keep them together. She’s an emotional junkie, desperate to turn the group of broken people around her into the self-sustaining family unit that she obviously expected. Most interestingly, Val is also addicted, in a way which is rarely explored in films about abused wives. It seems to me that she is, for the first half of the film, addicted to the idea that its better to be in an unhappy relationship than to be alone and so she regards every beating and insult as proof that she simply needs to work harder at doing the right thing. She has a passionate instinct to protect her daughter and, like so many battered wives, thinks that it’s better for the child to be with a father – however hopeless – than to be the ‘victim’ of a divorce. I also think that she has become addicted to the appalling treatment, believing that she has deserved it and that she is worth no better. It’s the ultimate beating that kills her unborn child that wakes her up to the reality of her situation. Unfortunately, statistics demonstrate that a majority of women in her situation don’t get out, and end up being either killed or beaten so badly that they are permanently crippled. Unlike in films like Sleeping With The Enemy and Enough, Val doesn’t have to learn martial arts or devise a complex plan of revenge. She wins by doing the only thing she practically can do – by leaving. What is perceptive in this portrait however, brilliantly played by Kathy Burke, is that she still seems to have some feelings for Ray; she sees him as part of her life even when she’s moved on and the understated, poignant ending suggests that she will never quite manage to hate him. Kathy Burke is a strong, unsentimental actress and her comic timing is well used here, along with her total refusal to beg our sympathy. Her Best Actress award at Cannes was well deserved because this is a completely convincing portrait of a woman who can’t help herself because she has had the strength to do so beaten out of her, not only by her husband but by a life full of disappointments. She also gets her own short monologue, delivered with a coldly intense anger, when she refuses to go back to Ray:
When you go out, you go out with your mates, and when you are in, you're pissed out and your brain's asleep in front of the fucking television. I turn the television off, go up to bed, you follow me up at three o'clock in the morning stinking of booze. That's what I get. Either that or you're knocking me about. I'm 30 today, you know, and I feel so fucking old. You know, I'm tired, you know, I wanna be able to look back and say, "Yeah, I had a bit of fun," you know, when I'm old, instead of saying "Everyone fucking felt sorry for me!" I mean, that's the life I've got. Do you hear what I'm saying? I just don't want it. I'll, I'll find somebody else. You know, someone who can love me. Someone kind.
I quote extensively because it seems to me that Gary Oldman is a far better writer than he is a director. Certainly, he works well with the actors and keeps the film moving along but there’s nothing especially inventive about his direction. His writing, however, has a colloquial rhythm that is astonishingly accomplished and obviously springs from some kind of autobiographical experience. There’s a strong, personal vision of the world here and it’s one which is paradoxically both despairing and optimistic. For all the horrific acts in the film there are usually touch of kindness or gentle humour. The single most transcendent moment in the film is a short scene where Val dances in the kitchen with her grandma. No words are needed because in this one act we understand the entire relationship. It’s a small epiphany in a film which might otherwise be unbearably tragic. Although Oldman’s direction isn’t much more than very competent, the film looks entirely convincing thanks to the frequent use of hand-held camera and carefully chosen locations – at times, the tower block where Ray and Val live looks like the gates of hell, bathed in a ghastly yellow artificial light. The cinematography by Ron Fortunato clearly deserves mention here. The supporting cast also convince, especially the wonderful Edna Dore as Grandma, Jamie Foreman as Ray’s appallingly loquacious mate Mark, and Laila Morse as the wounded but brave Janet. I think it’s widely known now that Morse is actually Oldman’s sister, enhancing the sense of this being a personal film he had to make. It’s dedicated to his father, although whether that’s at all ironic is not obvious. What is obvious is that this is a true labour of love and an important film which deserves to be seen more than once.
I had high hopes for Fox’s DVD of Nil By Mouth and had particularly hoped for a commentary from Gary Oldman. In the event, we have to settle for a reasonably good audio and visual transfer and nothing else.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. Given the deliberately rough and ready look of the film it’s a good transfer. There’s a lot of grainy texturing present, which is intentional, and some artifacting, which isn’t. However, there’s a lot of fine detail, some nicely defined colours and excellent contrast in the frequent exterior night scenes.
The only soundtrack on the disc is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. This is pretty good, capturing the atmospheric locations on the surrounds and presenting the dialogue in a very natural manner – some of the talk is deliberately obscured and Oldman frequently has characters talking over one another. Barely any use of the sub, but I wouldn’t have expected it. Eric Clapton’s bluesy score comes over well. This isn’t the most exciting 5.1 soundtrack I’ve ever heard but it’s absolutely fine for this kind of film.
There are 20 chapter stops and optional English subtitles. No extras have been provided, not even the theatrical trailer.
Nil By Mouth is not a film for the easily upset or for people who think that Kathy Burke’s finest moment was playing Waynetta Slob. But it’s a truthful, passionate and painful piece of drama which is riveting even when you can hardly bear to watch the screen. The DVD is barebones but presents the film well and is worth buying, particularly if you can find it discounted online.