British actor Gary Oldman, who made his mark playing a punk in Sid and Nancy and a playwright in Prick Up Your Ears, wrote and directed Nil by Mouth, which has already drawn comparisons to the class-conscious dramas of Mike Leigh (Naked, Secrets & Lies). The film, which Oldman dedicates to his father, is a look back at his days growing up in working-class South London.
Oldman seems like just the right bloke to handle a project like this: He holds real credentials both working class (he's the son of a welder who left when his boy was seven) and dramatic (he was considered, incongruously, a "British theater actor" from the Royal Court Theatre when Sid and Nancy hit in 1986). But it may be that Oldman is still too close to the grisly, gritty material of his childhood to manipulate it for dramatic purpose. Or it may be that he has trouble writing scripts. In either case, Nil by Mouth is too violent and, at 128 minutes, far too long.
The film begins with a promising scene in a loud pub, in which a band of foul-mouthed but at times hilarious lager louts entertain each other with outrageous stories and boasts while the camera crosscuts to monologues by terrible standup comedians. One look at the haircuts tells us that we're close to the dispirited, unfashionable Britain of Mike Leigh.
The film's aesthetic duplicates the material sparsity of its setting: The hand-held cameras, from beginning to end, move in jumpy fits and starts, as if in a poorly funded documentary about working-class life.
In the pub we meet the three friends who will remain at the center of the film: the witty Mark (Jamie Forman), the young, lank Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) and most important, Raymond (Ray Winstone), whose stubbornness and physical heft bring to mind a hard-drinking cockney bull. And though it takes longer, we get a sense of the women in the film -- Billy's vivacious mother, Janet (newcomer Laila Morse), her wrinkled, laconic mother, Kath (Edna Dore), and the haggard Valerie, Ray's long-suffering wife, in a role that won Kathy Burke the best actress award at Cannes last year. (The kudos seem only fair after enduring a husband like Ray.)
We understand, too, that this is the London not of high collars and fluted street lamps but of garish corner shops, high-rise housing projects, neon-lit strip joints and seedy launderettes on busy streets. That is, an incompletely Americanized country in which neither socialism nor capitalism seem to work, and in which the tradition that could hold up an otherwise poor country has been banished by cheap-shot commercialism.
After this engaging setup, though, the film soon begins to fall apart -- or rather, fail to come together. The characters fight with each other, bond, drink, shoot up, try to reconcile and so on -- but a plot never focuses. Oldman, of course, is trying to show up a class of people and a part of the city that, at least according to the press notes, haven't been explored sufficiently in film. But there are two problems: One is that a movie can scarcely be driven by its atmosphere and setting alone; the other is that we've seen British grit before. And how could Oldman, of all people, not know that?
Despite the recent popularity of genteel, bewigged adaptations of Jane Austen and Henry James (Martin Amis has called this a bout of nostalgia for the class system), the best British films have, at least for the past three or four decades, focused on the life of the working class and the down-and-out, often with the kind of stylistic austerity on which the Brits thrive.
Social realism, in fact -- beginning with the early '60s British New Cinema, the U.K.'s terse and powerful answer to the French New Wave and Italian neorealism -- may be what the Brits do best. From 1960's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning through the spare Ken Loach to the empathy and chemistry of Leigh's films -- not to mention Stephen Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette and Prick Up Your Ears in the '80s, all the British theater that comes out of Pinter or the BBC's yob-centric Channel Four -- it's been the very heart of the British dramatic tradition.
Though Oldman aims much higher than, say, The Full Monty -- which proved the Brits are so good at this stuff they can even make a popular gray-skies movie -- he's on well-trod ground. We know this turf well enough, at this point, that we don't need two hours-plus of establishing shots and dirty streets.
The film's other main flaw is, in a way, a victim of its success: Nil by Mouth (the title refers to a hospital patient who cannot be fed orally) is so convincingly gritty that it verges, at least at times, on the unwatchable. Much of the film's violence is needless. Oldman, for instance, seems almost to enjoy lingering on his characters' facial wounds. You want to shout, "We get it!"
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It's not that a really gritty or violent film can't work. Leigh's Naked, for instance, a film almost as ugly and violent as Nil by Mouth, risked overloading us with brutality and hopelessness. But David Thewlis's Johnny was equal part charmer and deviant, and the movie's dramatic high points -- when Johnny strolls the street with the edgy Scottish kid and stays up late with the goodhearted security guard -- gave us a glimpse into Johnny's, and Leigh's, souls. We weren't desensitized to the violence and nastiness because we were reminded that life can offer real connection and solace, however accidental. Despite a couple of cute kids and a noble grandma character, Oldman shovels only misery.
On the good side, though, Oldman demonstrates talent as a director. For a first-time director, especially, he throws off great flashes of style throughout the film. The movie's visual highlight may be the fun the camera has with the stark, inhuman geometry of the high-rise housing projects Billy runs through on his way to buy drugs, just past the movie's midpoint. And the film's performances are all memorable.
Winstone is so convincing as the bullish Ray that he's genuinely scary to watch on-screen -- especially when he's drinking Smirnoff out of the bottle or beating hell out of friends and lovers. He's a powerful enough actor, and an intimidating enough character, that a little of him goes a long way. The film might have been more successful -- evoking, for instance, some empathy for these losers' plights -- if the more levelheaded and charismatic Mark had served as the center of the action. As it is, it's hard not to simply side with the women in the film and dismiss the guys as a bunch of dangerous, drunken creeps who deserve a world little better than the one they've got.
Nil by Mouth.
Directed by Gary Oldman. Starring Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Charlie Creed-Miles, Laila Morse and Jamie Forman.