Gary Oldman’s passion project is a punishingly raw, unforgettably tough drama of marital abuse
Director: Gary Oldman
Cast: Ray Winstone (Raymond), Kathy Burke (Valerie), Charlie Creed-Miles (Billy), Laila Morse (Janet), Edna Dore (Kath), Chrissie Cotterill (Paula), Jon Morrison (Angus), Jamie Foreman (Mark)
Gary Oldman called it his Lamborghini. Where other stars poured money into fast cars, Oldman pumped millions into this passion project. Writing and directing, Oldman’s film was not autobiographical, but an exploration of working-class themes that had surrounded him during his life. Nil By Mouth is a punishing look at the self-destructive cycles of some working-class lives, trapped in ruts with little opportunities or aspirations, tinged with humour but smothered in an aggressive and toxic masculinity where women so often become the victims.
Raymond (Ray Winstone) is married to Valerie (Kathy Burke). They live in a council estate in London, along with Valerie’s junkie brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles). Raymond makes a living in casual crime and carries a seething, barely controlled temper that explodes at the slightest provocation. Often that comes from his own family and his shocking and brutal capacity for extreme, vindictive rage will leave physical and mental scars on all around him.
Oldman’s Nil By Mouth doesn’t really have a plot as such. It’s more a ‘slice of life’ film – or a kitchen-sink drama, but one where the sink is ripped from the wall and used to smash someone in the face. Nil By Mouth is visceral, difficult to watch and relentlessly, almost overwhelmingly, powerful in its grimness. Oldman doesn’t allow a shred of romance about working class life. There is no nobility inherent in poverty, and for every piece of human decency there are those stuck in self-destructive cycles. Often this means men barrelling around causing pain, while women pick up the pieces.
Oldman shoots the film with an alarming immersiveness. Handheld cameras, awkward turns and a deliberate shunning of the careful and conservative distancing of two-shot set-ups, makes the viewer feel uncomfortable close to the characters in all their exceptionally flawed whole. The film is designed to make us feel as much in the room as possible, an increasingly helpless witness to the aggression and violence that bubbles under the surface of every moment. Just like Valerie’s young daughter, who watches everything with a mute silence, we are helpless witnesses.
Working-class London is an overwhelmingly male – and toxic – environment. No one can go more than a few words without effing and blinding. All the male characters guard their personal space like pit bulls. The slightest accidental touch can be met with nose-to-nose spittle fuelled fury. While there is a homespun humour to some of the conversations, the content is pitch-black. Anything that could even be vaguely interpreted as weakness is aggressively shunned.
It’s clear that all the man are emotionally stunted, frightened little boys behaving with the aggression of angry teenagers and the muscles of fully-grown men. Oldman’s gift with the film is to look at some of the most appalling people, with an understanding that never tips into sympathy. None more so than wife-beater Raymond. Raymond is a monster. A bleeding fist of anger, who sheds self-pitying tears in the aftermath of the latest atrocity he has inflicted upon his wife (“I do it because I love you”). Raymond sees himself as “the Daddy” but is actually a weak-willed bully, drowning in self-loathing and crippled by misdirected anger and grief at his own bullying father.
None of this excuses the appalling, terrifying behaviour he dishes out to Billy and Valerie. He nearly bites Billy’s nose off in an incandescent fury when Billy steals his drugs. That’s nothing to the jealous beating he meets out to Valerie when he witnesses her playing pool with a man. This shockingly violent outburst of kicks, punches and stamps to the prone and weeping Valerie is impossible to watch (mercifully Oldman keeps it mostly off camera). It’s felt inevitable: Raymond looks on the edge of handing out a beating every time we see him.
But then, Oldman is making the point, it’s inevitable to the characters as well. None of Valerie’s family are surprised by it – even if there is a vague attempt by her mother Janet (played excellently by Oldman’s real-life sister Laila Morse) to accept Valerie’s detailed story of a hit-and-run leading to her disfiguring injuries. Raymond is translating the pain handed out him onto his own family, dishing out treatment he received from his father but a hundred-fold worse. Just as his mother accepted treatment like this from his father, so Valerie will accept it from him. Her daughter will see this behaviour, and likely accept the same from her husband in the future.
Why do women accept it? Because what choice do they have? There is so few opportunities. Aspiration hardly comes into it – even if it clearly doesn’t exist for many – because quite simply the idea of there being another way of living your life than this just seems impossible. Women are there to pick-up the pieces. Janet has been doing it for years, nursing her son through a drug-habit with cash when he needs it (all of which goes into his arm). They need to keep the family, dysfunctional as it is, strangely functional. To let the dust settle, to welcome the abuser back in when he promises to change, give the junkie who has robbed them one more chance.
Nil By Mouth is at its strongest when it implies this terrible cycle. This can’t be the first time Raymond has struck Valerie (there is mention of an earlier estranged marriage, which presumably ended for the same reason). The film comes full circle to the family back together again – but no problems have been solved, no changes made, no revelations made. People have simply come together because, at the end of the day, what other choices are there?
Nil By Mouth isn’t perfect. Its grim power is sometimes overstretched at its two-hour plus run time. Much of the first half hour focuses on Billy, with Oldman’s camera a little too in love with the observational tragedy of this slightly shallow character (Creed-Miles does a good job, but the character is never quite interesting enough to sustain his screen-time). This is particularly obvious once the focus returns to the raw, unwatchable power of Raymond and Valerie.
Here Oldman also shows his strengths as a director of actors. Winstone – who a year before was making episodes of One Foot in the Grave and Murder Most Horrid – saw his whole career change with a performance of such stunning intensity, commitment and sheer visceral horror matched with self-pitying weakness, that he makes Raymond one of the most pathetic monsters of cinema. Kathy Burke is astoundingly good as Valerie, suffering, patient but unable to conceive of a change to her life. Both have never been better, turning a domestic tragedy into something of elemental force.
Oldman’s film is hard, grim, difficult viewing – but also essential. It marks him, after Laughton, as one of the greatest sole-directing credit actors (so far!) ever. Nil By Mouth, once seen, is impossible to forget.