Rough, tough but with an underlying generosity toward its characters, Gary Oldman’s “Nil by Mouth” is an impressive writing-helming debut cloaked in a torrent of profanity and loutish, abusive behavior. This perf-driven portrait of a dysfunctional London working-class family, which often plays like hyped-up Ken Loach sans the politics, will need excellent reviews and canny marketing to find an audience, especially Stateside, where the thick cockney accents present a major barrier to comprehension. Some 15 minutes taken out of the running time would be a major assist to this powerful but uncompromising low-budgeter.
Godfathered by French director Luc Besson, with whom Oldman made both “The Professional” and “The Fifth Element,” pic is clearly a deeply personal film for the 39-year-old thesp, who’s drawn on many of his memories of life in the dreary projects of southeast London. (Production company’s name replicates the postal code of an area in which Oldman grew up.)
The overall tone and approach is set from the first sequence, in a crowded pub-cum-club where the main characters congregate. Characters are presented with no introduction, as if familiar already; the language is super-ripe, in broad cockney with a record use of words beginning with “f” and “c”; and Oldman establishes his tendency to shoot in either close-up or medium close-up from the get-go.
Like the relationships between the principals, which it takes a while to figure out, there’s an almost complete disregard for any backgrounding, though it’s clear that several characters live on the borderline of society and already have “form” (criminal records). Oldman’s take on the working-class genre is to focus entirely on the characters’ emotional makeup, with even the pic’s physical locales sketchily rendered.
Tight-knit family group is made up of Raymond (Winstone), brutish, foul-mouthed husband of Val (Kathy Burke) and brother-in-law of young Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), with whom he has an edgy relationship. Also around are Val and Billy’s tough mother, Janet (Laila Morse), and her mother, the spirited Kath (Edna Dore).
Early scenes have a rough humor, as Raymond and friend Mark (Jamie Forman) jaw in the pub and at home, do some business and go uptown for a night in a strip club. Catalyst to the main action — and the pic’s darker tone — is when Raymond kicks Billy out on the street after suspecting him of stealing. The young kid, who has a drug habit, is forced to survive outside the family circle, apart from clandestine visits when Raymond is not around.
After being absent for a good portion of the movie’s middle, Raymond returns with a vengeance — savagely beating the pregnant Val in front of their young daughter and prompting a show of female solidarity against his loutish behavior.
With few details of day-to-day existence, and the passage of time marked only by wounds healing on characters’ faces, pic has an almost free-form style, dipping into the players’ lives at key moments. In that respect, it’s an actor-led movie, and like many another thesp-turned-director, Oldman sometimes lets performance dominate pacing. The film could easily lose one or two reels to its advantage, with such scenes as an early ensemble in the family apartment, a druggie (Steve Sweeney) mimicking Dennis Hopper in “Apocalypse Now,” and Raymond’s drunken ravings at home prime candidates for heavy shearing.
One of the pic’s strongest themes is the strength, despite the men’s braggadocio, of the family’s de facto matriarchy. Janet secretly carries on subsidizing Billy’s habit as long as she can, and Val, though abused, still holds by the concept of “family” in a kind of unthinking loyalty. The theme is underlined in the movie’s final, surprising sequence, which gives an upbeat but true portrait of the cockney characters’ life-goes-on generosity.
Winstone, a former boxer, dominates the film with an intensely focused performance that perpetually carries the threat of physical violence, but, as in a memorable scene with his best friend, Raymond can admit to weaknesses as well. Both Burke, as his punching-bag wife, and Morse, as his tough mother-in-law, inhabit their characters’ skins, with Dore contribbing a sparky cameo as the fearless grandma. Of the other men, Forman is very good as Raymond’s raconteur pal, and Creed-Miles fine as the withdrawn Billy.
Though the movie stands on its performances, Oldman has wrapped them in an edgy directorial style that alternates between hand-held, verite lensing and moments of remarkable stillness, such as Raymond’s attempt to apologize to Val (a dialogue at night that finds both actors in peak form) and his memories of his father’s lack of affection. Latter scene cleverly brings down the emotional temperature of the movie before the final stretch.
Tech credits are OK to good, with Eric Clapton’s music often playing against mood for effect, and Ron Fortunato’s lensing capturing the grayness of the southeast London locales in the armpit of the River Thames. Brad Fuller’s editing is on the button.
Title stems from Raymond’s monologue describing a visit to his father in hospital, where a sign above the bed stated “nil by mouth.” As well as a metaphor for his dad’s parsimony with loving words, it’s an apt description for all the characters, whose four-letter volubility is too often a substitute for real emotion.
For the record, pic is dedicated “in memory of my father.”