“Nil By Mouth” (1997)

(Author’s note: the clip below contains terrible language and violence, view at own discretion.)

One of the most intense movies this reviewer has ever seen, along with serving as Gary Oldman’s directorial debut, Nil By Mouth is certainly not for the casual viewer or for anyone who wants lighthearted entertainment.  The film is coated with intense swearing and violence, and compound this with the thick English accents, the movie can seem like an intense chore to get through. But for those who want to seek out Nil By Mouth, they will find an incredible film that contains amazing direction and performances.

Nil By Mouth
Kathy Burke as Val, Ray Winstone as Ray

The story of Nil By Mouth

concerns itself with a working class family in London and their daily struggles as they fight poverty.  There is Ray (Ray Winstone) and Val (Kathy Burke) a married couple about to have their second baby, Val’s brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), a horrible drug addict; and finally Kathy and Val’s mother Janet (Laila Morse), who provides the only source of income for the entire family.  Each of the characters displays their own personal demons: Ray is a terrible alcoholic who is prone to violence, Val is also an alcoholic who often smokes and drinks while she is pregnant and displays no personal strength; Billy is prone to stealing money and shooting up heroin; while it would seem that Janet is the source of moral strength even she has her moral failings: in one notable scene she drives Billy to buy drugs and allows him to shoot up in her car.  This is a deliberate act on the part of Oldman: he wants the audience to see both the good and bad in the characters and to prevent the audience from vilifying one member of the family compared to the others.

The setting and style also contribute heavily into what the audience sees.  The London of  Nil By Mouth is certainly not the cool stylized swinging London that is displayed to American audiences, but has more in line with the Kitchen Sink Realism dramas of the 1960s.  These movies often showed working-class characters and their day-to-day struggles and are filmed in a realistic manner. In this regard Nil By Mouth is certainly a successor to this type of drama.  Oldman films the movie in the veritè style which creates even more intimacy between the film and the audience: the viewer becomes a part of the world that the characters inhabit, becomes more emotionally invested in the decisions they make, and the actions they perform.  Due to this emotional investment, it is harder for the audience to remove itself from the horrible actions the characters perform.  A notable instance of this occurs in the scene where Ray horribly beats Kathy while she’s pregnant (seen below); the fact that the audience feels like they are inside the house while Ray is beating her shows the power that Oldman’s direction has, as well as the performances.

Another further strength of Nil By Mouth are the performances.  Each actor does an incredible job, but the person who incredibly stands out is the great Ray Winstone as Ray.  While other actors would have portrayed Ray as a simple brute who beats his wife because he’s a drunk, Winstone portrays him as a person, who while horrible, has deep insecurities and who takes out these insecurities on the people he loves.  It is a testament to Winstone’s performance that the audience can completely buy the fact that they are both repelled by Ray’s violence toward the people his life, but feel sympathy for his poverty and insecurities.

Incredible direction, realistic dialogue, and amazing performances help make Nil By Mouth an impressive experience.  It is obvious that this project is a personal passion of Oldman’s and the rest of the cast, and viewers can see this passion across the screen.  Although it can be tough at times to watch, this should not distract the viewers from witnessing this great work of art.

Fun fact: Laila Morse, who portrays Janet, is Gary Oldman’s real life sister.  The voice singing at the end of the movie is Gary Oldman’s mom.

Fun Fact #2: This film holds the world record for most uses of the f-word and the c-word in a dramatic film. 428 uses of the f-bomb, which equates to almost 3.3 f-bombs per minute. 84 uses of the c-word. You could certainly make a drinking game out of it (although please drink responsibly.)


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