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Nil By Mouth (1997)

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 party 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.

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