Review: Nil by Mouth
BFI Limited Edition 2-disc Blu-ray, iTunes and Amazon Prime: Nil by Mouth (1997)
How do you review a film like Nil By Mouth? The actual story, well, there’s not much too it, a few things happen, but this isn’t a ‘story’ as such, it’s more a slice of life, it’s not a peek into, it’s a full frontal attack.
Written and directed by Gary Oldman (his only directorial film to date) it’s often thought it’s biographical, Gary insists it isn’t. His dad may have had an alcohol problem, but he wasn’t a wife beater. It’s easy to see why an audience would assume it’s autobiographical, filmed and based in South London, with all London born actors, it seems like we spying on the gown up kids of the characters in Up The Junction.
Opening in a smoky, ram packed club, Ray (Winstone) queues at the bar, there’s singing, its loud, they’ve run out of ice. He leaves some G&Ts with his wife Valerie (Kathy Burke who won best actress Palm D’or for the part) and her mum, Janet (Oldman’s real life sister Laila Morse). He swans off to sit with his mate Mark (Jamie Forman), because, well that’s what real men do isn’t it? Val’s drug addict brother Billy (a very young and wonderfully wide-eyed Charlie Creed -Miles) turns up, he’s helping Mark and Ray on a job. There’s no doubt this involves drugs. Billy is a nuisance, a chancer, an innocent, yet will rob you for smack money.
Nil By Mouth, for those who haven’t seen it, is known for its swear count (2 million fucks and 3 million cunts) and its violence. Mostly perpetrated and performed by Ray.
In essence this is a glimpse into a working class family, from fucking London, you cunt. They are poor, the man won’t work, they survive on whatever ‘deals’ he makes. All the men have been in prison, and all the men are emotionally stunted, except when it comes to affront and rage.
There are so many ways to read this film. Ray’s story, unloved and ignored by his alcoholic dad, he grew up into a criminal filled with so much rage he drinks to squash it, or …enable it? His friend Mark admits to having a heart attack after taking ‘happy pills’ – They DO know they are not ‘right’, yes of course they do. Even Billy, high on smack, who talks about the dog he had as a kid, disappearing because his dad got rid of it, his eyes filled with tears. Ray who near the end of the film talks about his son (he has a daughter with Valerie and she is pregnant with baby #2), so he’s already estranged one family. Why? Because he’s an alcoholic and a wife beater? Probably. ALL the men are disjointed, in pain, the cause of all the pain and seem to swim in self -pity, even the drug addicts in the laundromat.
Whenever I’ve read anything about Nil by Mouth it’s always concentrated on Ray’s character and his background, but I think Gary wrote equally for women, and made a film about the strength of women and their acceptance of a shit fate.
Burke, Morse and Edna Dore as Kath (Val’s nan, Jan’s mum) all give world-weary yet ultimately ‘survival at all costs’ performances. On both sides of the family the men (from stories told and reminiscences) have been hopeless, work-shy alcoholic bastards, while the women worked, brought up the kids and put up with the beatings and other women.
Most of us remember Kathy Burke as Perry or Waynetta, and in the UK she is a comedy legend. Sometimes watching the film I was reminded of Perry’s vacant look as Val gazes at, nothing really. Why does Val stay? Why has she become pregnant gain by this man?
It’s what’s expected of her. It’s what women do. It’s only after Val is recovering from the beating and she meets Ray on the stairs, that Burke shows us all those years of suffering are barely beneath the surface, and she gives a simple speech, the look on her face is one that a lot of women will recognise, a look that says, “you can kill me now, I just don’t fucking care anymore, but I’m not coming back”. It’s was a knife in the heart.
It’s a microcosm of the worst life, and even though its 25 years old, it could be today (just add mobile phones). The hopelessness, the poverty, the endless cunts an’ smoking fags soaks into you, and the most horrifying thing of all is, Gary has put us in the room with them. Faces loom, curtains twitch, the endless monotony of poverty and violence and fear, you’re sitting on the sofa with Billy, watching it all, close up, Oldman makes us part of that family.
I remember watching Nil by Mouth when It came out and it was a hard watch, its still a hard watch but in a different way, and its weird, to me this time – 25 years later – it’s all about the women not the men (even though they take up most of the screen time). It’s not about the reason’s Ray is such a cunt (his childhood etc) but rather why the women stay there, and this was brought home to me in the final minutes of the film. In a way it reminded me of Irreversible, where the ending seemed to come full circle, the circle of life. A really shit life, with glimpses of happiness.
Quick mention for the extras…I sat down and watched them all yesterday, and all of them are not only insightful, but entertaining. Chats with filmmakers about their films can be dry, but Oldman is really engaging, as is Winstone and I fell a bit in love with Creed-Miles who it seems still can’t believe his luck at being in the film. Only one was missing – Kathy Burke.
Fantastic package from the BFI and a real classic film from Oldman.
- Newly remastered in 4K by the BFI National Archive and approved by writer-director Gary Oldman
- Newly recorded audio commentary by writer and director Gary Oldman and producer Douglas Urbanski
- Setting The Record Straight (2022, 51 mins): Gary Oldman in Conversation with film critic Geoff Andrew
- A Slice of Life (2022, 22 mins): Ray Winstone looks back on his Bafta-nominated performance
- Talent is Worth Trusting: Douglas Urbanski on Nil by Mouth (2022, 16 mins): Gary Oldman’s long-time collaborator and the producer of Nil by Mouth discusses how the film came to be made
- Fearing the Worst: Charlie Creed-Miles on Nil by Mouth (2022, 28 mins): the actor recalls the making of Nil by Mouth
- People Were Queuing For Any Role (2022, 16 mins): casting director Sue Jones recalls her work on the film
- Mother (Gary Oldman, 1994, 7 mins): the only surviving footage recorded for an unrealised documentary about his mother’s life and experiences
- Deleted scenes (1997, 36 mins): a series of deleted scenes selected by Gary Oldman
- Galleries – a selection of rare production materials from Gary Oldman’s personal archive
- Children (1976, 46 mins): written while still a student, Terence Davies’ film is the first in his ‘Trilogy’ series and has an uncompromising honesty that is echoed in Nil by Mouth
- 25th anniversary trailer
- 80-page book featuring new writing by Douglas Urbanski, Kat Ellinger, Lou Thomas, Philip Kemp, and Jason Wood and archive extracts from Time Out and Sight & Sound. Also includes contributions on selected extras by Gary Oldman and never before seen original storyboards from the film
- Newly created English subtitles for the Deaf and partial hearing
- Newly created audio description track
- Limited edition of 4,000 copies
Review by Tina from discs kindly supplied by the BFI.