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Nil By Mouth
cast: Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Laila Morse, and Charlie Creed-Miles

writer and director: Gary Oldman

123 minutes (18) 1996
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Barry Forshaw
Is Gary Oldman's highly impressive directorial debut a celebration of his East End roots? For most of its gruelling running time, it's hard to see Nil By Mouth in anything but the most scarifying terms, as the squalid picture of drunkenness, violent abuse and drug-taking presents a picture of working class lives which are impoverished in every possible sense of the term. But then a moment happens - near the end of the film - a brief glimpse of the humanity and warmth possible among the dispossessed. Most of the time, though, the characters are totally given over to the relentless four-letter abuse that everyone - including the women - routinely converse in. Language here is as dead and meaningless as the lives of the protagonists, their swearword-laden inarticulacy a mirror of their blighted lives.
   But if all of this makes the idea of watching the film sound dispiriting, it's anything but that; so manifold is the artistry on display here. Not least Ray Winstone, as the violent, alcoholic wife-beating petty criminal Ray, a portrait of incoherent brutality to set beside De Niro's similar turn in Raging Bull. Winstone and his director-writer withhold our sympathy for the character for most of the film - a daring move, as Ray is so appalling - then a crucial speech about his unloving father makes us understand, if not forgive (and this is not handled in any facile, pop-psychology fashion). Kathy Burke is equally persuasive as Ray's brutalised, pregnant wife, abusing her own body (and that of her unborn child) with endless cigarettes almost as tirelessly as Ray, who spares himself no possible indulgence.
   There are no epiphanies here, and Oldman avoids a linear narrative (key moments happen off-screen), but a scene in a pub in which the women of the film enjoy the great popular songs of the golden era (Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man and My Heart Belongs To Daddy) encapsulates the indomitable human spirit that is Gary Oldman's real concern. Let's hope one of his turns as a Hollywood villain facilitates another directorial outing as powerful as Nil By Mouth (finance for the film came from such sources as Francis Ford Coppola, for whom Oldman played an over-mannered Dracula, and Coppola's Apocalypse Now gets a witty riff spun on it in Oldman's movie.
   Regrettably there are no extras - if ever a film cried out for a documentary in which the director articulated his vision, it's Nil By Mouth.
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