I haven’t seen a discussion of this yet so I thought I’d start one. It’s been years since I watched this engrossing, downbeat domestic drama, directed by actor Gary Oldman, but I have never forgotten it. It has really stayed with me, it’s that quietly powerful a film. Oldman has said it’s autobiographical, and if so, I don’t envy him. The main character, brilliantly played by Ray Winstone in his best performance, is a guy who does little else but drink and severely abuse his wife (also brilliantly played by Kathy Burke) and brother in law.
I guess this is like Cassavetes, in that Oldman just sort of lets the actors do their thing. The scenes are long, and either feature what seems like improvisatory dialogue, or little dialogue at all. Early on there’s a scene in a bar where all the characters are getting drunk and there are some amateur singers — that’s kind of charming, but the film quickly gets very dark. One scene of physical abuse is one of the most brutal I’ve ever seen in a film.
There’s a wonderful scene, too, where Kathy Burke is recovering from Winstone’s abuse at her elderly mother’s house and she slow-dances with her mother in a nice moment of female bonding. Burke keeps going back to Winstone, although her character’s passivity makes you want to scream at times. During one painful reconciliation she says to him that she hates the idea that people will look at her and think, “she never had much fun in life,” getting beat up all the time. It feels like such an understatement, but it also feels very realistic, that she would be worried more about what people think of her than her own well being.
The title refers to hospital instructions, when a patient is to be given no food or water — “nil by mouth.” In a late scene, Winstone reminisces how his own father was in the hospital and had this sign above him, and for Winstone it was the perfect epitaph for a cold, distant man who expressed nothing with his mouth — no words of love or affection, no kisses.
This really is an acting tour de force, and I think a small masterpiece.
I was going to mention this film in the other thread about neo-realist films! I thought it was tremendous – I often wonder why Gary Oldman hasn’t directed anything else since Nil By Mouth.
Me too. It’s such a deeply personal film. I’d call him an important director based on this one film alone. It’s very realist, but I feel like it has a sort of light touch as well — maybe the offbeat music has to do with this.
I also wanted to say, if you watch this in a double feature with Mike Leigh’s Naked, you’ll witness the best of modern British film.
Absolutely! – Naked is my favourite Mike Leigh film. Mind you if you watch these two back to back you might slip into a funk from which you might never recover.
They are heavy films.
Justin, I had a similar response to this film – it made such a powerful impression on me that I bought the dvd soon after seeing it. I wasn’t expecting it to be that great because it was Oldman’s first go at directing – I only watched it because I’ve been a big Gary Oldman admirer ever since I saw “Prick Up Your Ears” at the local art house theater when I was a college student. It really blew me away. I agree that it’s a small masterpiece with some really amazing performances.
Did you happen to see Tim Roth’s “The War Zone?” It was also a very impressive directing debut, and an incredible performance by Ray Winstone and the rest of the cast. I’d say it’s on par with Nil By Mouth. Highly recommend!
Thanks, Susan. Yes, I really want to see The War Zone. I’m glad to hear you recommend it.
Ooohh, I’ve been wanting to see this flick—I’d completely forgotten about it until just now. I just put it at #2 on my queue (#1 is Lives of Others and I gotta see that), and I’ve also put Naked at #3.
Thanks for the suggestions. I’ll be back to discuss when I’ve seen them.
Both heavy films. But great in their own way.
Josh…. good luck with Nil By Mouth…. it’s more a kick in the teeth than a film. Makes you wonder why Winstone hasn’t done more dark edgy parts? he could have bought great menace to the Kingsley role in Sexy Beast, brilliant as Kingsley was.
and Lives of Others is superb, it won’t disappoint.
Thanks. I’m armed for a kick. I’ve been through Irreversible, Martyrs, Salo, and that utter piece of shit Cannibal Holocaust, so I think I can take anything thrown at me. But I have a great respect for Oldman as an actor that I’ve always wanted to see his directorial effort.
The War Zone – my god; imagine watching a Nil By Mouth, Naked, War Zone triple bill. That would be a serious emotional and psychological battering. You might not live to see the next day. All great films though.
Another vote in favor of “The War Zone”.
A Nil By Mouth, Naked, War Zone triple bill is a walk in the park for me.
Sure! who needs to believe in the family unit, or total harmony between men and women? (or rather, who still does…?)
All overrated, surely.
I think part of the reason Oldman hasn’t made another film since Nil By Mouth is that he was resourcing autobiographical material heavily here. The scene early on in the film where Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) and Danny (Steve Sweeney) are trying to score drugs has a very authentic feel to it. Those two young men are straight off the streets of Croydon or Lambeth or Lewisham. Oldman grew up on a council estate in south east London but had the good fortune of getting into a very good independent grammar school slightly further out, on the boundary of Greater London and leafy Surrey. With a foot in both worlds, he’s in a prime position to reflect on why so many of the people around him never make it out of inner city and suburban estates. He carried that story around in him for many years while making his ascent in features, and having established a good working relationship and then subsequently a friendship with Luc Besson the film moved from germinating as an idea in Oldman’s imagination to becoming a definite production possibility. Although Besson’s own early underbelly films were more stylised, the content connection is there and it isn’t difficult to see why he’d have been supportive of his buddy’s gritty portrayal of underclass London.
I think Oldman told the story that was inside him to tell. The one he knew about. I admire him for that.
Well put, Carl. I agree.
I just got to rewatch this, and it really holds up. I was surprised by how vivid my recollections were — usually it’s hard to remember so much about a film about so many years. Burke dances with her grandmother, not her mother — the mother is younger, and tougher, sort of a Judi Dench type. I had forgotten how much of it concerns Billy’s search for heroin, and the painful scene where he gets his mother to help him buy drugs and then shoots up in front of her. And the music is divine. There are a few songs by a really talented singer named Frances who should be bigger than Lady Gaga right now if there were any justice. And where else can you hear Tony Christie singing “Hey Las Vegas, can nothing save us from you?” with Tom Jonesy vibrato. I want to learn that song and do it at some karaoke night. I mean, it’s right up there with “Delilah” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”
Haha, I did just that! And I’m still kicking minus a nick or two. :)
Another interesting parallel between Roth’s and Oldman’s directorial debuts is that they both dedicated their films to their fathers. I found that rather curious considering the subject matter of Nil By Mouth and especially The War Zone. I mean you don’t make a film about a man who abuses his daughter and go: “oh hey Dad, this one is for you.”
Does anyone know what all that is about?
Children will still usually love abusive parents. The bond with a parent is very strong and primal. Sometimes if a parent is abusive the child will feel an even more desperate love because they want to win that parent over. The abusive parent may also not be all bad. I think in the case of Oldman he dedicated to his dad (after his father’s death), because he basically wanted to raise awareness about the tragic effect alcoholism has on families. So he took the mess of his father’s life and turned it into something that was ultimately constructive.
After this and The War Zone, even Winstone’s friends must have been wary of him. The scene in The War Zone that I shouldn’t have to elaborate on is the most disturbing scene in any film i’ve seen. I was amazed that Roth went so far.
I love films like this. I haven’t seen it since the release year, but I still remember it well and think about it once in awhile.