A review by Damian Cannon. |
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997
Stunningly evoking a scene and mood of familial conflict, on a disheartening
South London housing estate, poor narrative grasp reduces the stature of Nil By Mouth.
Opening in the smoky, sweaty, sweary atmosphere of a down-market nightclub, Ray (Ray
Winstone) is found waiting impatiently for a round of drinks. Already the worse for wear,
his solid form barges through the crowd towards wife Valery (Kathy Burke) and her mother
Janet (Laila Morse). Refreshments are, however, all they're going to get out of Ray;
wasting no time he sets off towards his mate Mark (Jamie Forman). The company of men,
especially those who partake in drugs, fights and stripclubs, is Ray's preference.
After a little while Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), Ray's brother-in-law,
saunters by their table. A bit too fond of the needle for Ray's liking, Billy is almost
too unreliable to bother with. However this time Ray and Mark could do with an extra pair
of hands for one of their dodgy deals, a way of life in these parts. A week later the scam
passes with some success so Ray, Mark and Billy depart for a night on the town, leaving
Valery with Janet and grandmother Kath (Edna Dore); it's clear who runs this household
with an iron fist. Touring through pubs, clubs and porno palaces, Ray's every step exudes
an air of danger. Fuelled by nose candy and neat whisky, he's a landmine waiting for
someone to take a fatal step. Unfortunately the victim, guilty as he may be, is Billy;
foolish enough to thieve Ray's drugs, the dawn witnesses a whirlwind assault of volcanic
anger. This is the last straw for Ray.
Something of an exorcism for Gary Oldman, Nil By Mouth is partly due
to the strengths and weaknesses of any fly on the wall documentary. Its delivery in the
arena of intimate relationships is nigh on perfect; highs and lows are given equal weight
and nothing is left to the imagination. Even better, this is a family whom it would be
impossible to live with yet is generally compelling to watch; there's nothing like feeling
superior to keep one hooked. On the negative side the family is everything in Nil By
Mouth; Oldman sticks with them right from the start, never once pulling back to reveal the
bigger picture. While, in the right hands, this can make for powerful viewing, it also
leaves a vacancy at the heart of the picture. Basically it's hard to know just what Oldman
is trying to say because he fails to provide a context for his tale.
As befits the subject matter of Nil By Mouth both the performances and the
written roles are superb. Oldman knows his subject in frankly horrifying detail and
manages to distil this experience; the characters are terrifically believable throughout.
With cast members chosen for ability rather than public visibility, his imagination is
given every assistance in its journey to the screen. For example, Winstone's pivotal
rendition of the anger, fear and torment eating away at Ray is quite extraordinary. Bereft
of words to adequately describe his feelings, he is deeply locked into the cycle of
violence and despair present throughout his brutal life. While there can be no excuses for
his behaviour, Winstone makes it possible to understand why he strikes out at those
closest to him.
Fortunately the remainder of the family give equally honest performances,
revealing the pain of their circumstances. Burke is, without demonstration, highly
effective as Ray's bruised and battered spouse; Nil By Mouth pulls no punches in bringing
her dilemma to the fore. As her drug-addled and basically selfish brother, Creed-Miles
acts creditably in the time allotted; it's a pity that his tale of woe couldn't be
explored in greater depth. Orbiting around this core, Morse and Dore provide plenty of
understanding but precious few answers. As veterans of domestic warfare themselves they
are familiar with both the impossibility of leaving and the impossibility of staying.
Together this nucleus of characters give Nil By Mouth form and reason; through
them Oldman relates what is obviously a highly personal story.
Unfortunately for Nil By Mouth, in-your-face close ups and dynamic
photography can only take a film so far; in this case they transport us into the
character's lives. It's only on arrival that the patches and holes begin to show, mainly
in the creation of background and execution of story. You keep expecting certain events to
occur naturally from those shown earlier in the film, yet Nil By Mouth keeps
forgetting where it's been and jumps elsewhere. An ending that almost negates all that
preceded it is just the most blatant example of such carelessness. Still Nil By Mouth
is a memorable experience; so gruelling that it's hard not to turn away, no one emerges
unscathed from Oldman's unflinching vision of childhood hell.
Runtime: 128 Minutes
Note: Nil By Mouth has received numerous awards, including:
The British Independent Film Awards for Best Performance by a British Actor in an
Independent Film (Ray Winstone, Best Performance by a British Actress in an Independent
Film (Kathy Burke) and Most Promising Newcomer (Laila Morse) (1998); the Alexander Korda
Award for Best British Film and for Best Screenplay (1998); the Best Actress Award from
Cannes Film Festival (Kathy Burke) (1997); and the Channel 4 Director's Award from the
Edinburgh International Film Festival (1997).
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"THE MOST MOVING,FRIGHTENING,REALISTIC PEICE OF ART I'VE EVER
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