tue 31/01/2023

Blu-ray: Nil by Mouth | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Nil by Mouth

Blu-ray: Nil by Mouth

Gary Oldman's sole film as a director casts a cool eye on the London of his youth

Ray Winstone as hard-drinking Raymond, with Kathy Burke as his tormented wife, Valerie

Greg Urbanski, Gary Oldman’s long-term producing partner, tells us on the commentary track that no film company wanted to touch the script of Nil by Mouth. Oldman was riding high as an actor in 1996, renowned for his shape-shifting performances as Sid Vicious and Joe Orton in the UK, and Lee Harvey Oswald, Beethoven and Dracula in the US. 

But moving into the director’s seat was seen as career suicide, especially with Oldman’s highly personal screenplay about working class family life in South London lacking star names. Luc Besson, who had had a big hit with Oldman in Leon, wanted Nil by Mouth to be more comedic, he couldn’t see the humour but eventually came in as a producer with Oldman himself bankrolling a lot of the production costs.

There’s a visceral realism running throughout the film with sharply observed scenes of drug taking, petty crime, alcohol abuse and domestic violence. It’s not an easy watch as characters destroy themselves and the ones they love. But there is great warmth and moments of humour (despite Besson's misgivings) along the way. 

Nil by Mouth BFI coverOldman describes his film as a love letter to the resilience of the people he grew up with in 1970s New Cross. The locations are authentic, pubs, burger bars and the urine-soaked lifts and corridors of run-down council blocks. Oldman’s sister Laila Morse (pre East Enders) plays a pivotal role, his mother’s voice is heard in a sing-along scene and there are small cameos from friends and family. Even Oldman's regular driver got a small part, although we're not told by the director where he found the very real strippers who appear in a Soho sequence.

Oldman is adamant that Nil by Mouth is not strictly autobiographical – while his father was an alcoholic who left the family, he was never violent as the principal character is here. The movie is dedicated to his father, who had died in 1985. The press leapt on that tribute as admission of an abused childhood, but Oldman’s own experience of self-destructive alcoholism doubtless also informed the role.

We first meet Raymond (Ray Winstone) impatiently placing a large drinks order for his family and friends at the bar. The setting is the working-man’s club Oldman’s father frequented. The camera-work is intimate, the dialogue fast-paced, funny and very sweary. There’s a touch of early Scorsese in the cramped club scenes, and when the action moves outside to long-lens camerawork on the streets and council estate, the influence of Alan Clarke is palpable. On the Blu-ray audio commentary Oldman describes how as an actor on other filmmakers’ sets, he was always interested in the technical aspects, particularly what the director of photography was doing. He would note the emotional impact of framing or a particular camera move. In love with the grainy film stock of 1970s cinema, he describes his struggle to find a way to give his film a similar look 20 years later. 

When the movie premiered at Cannes, it was nominated for the Palme d’Or and Kathy Burke, playing Ray Winstone’s beleaguered wife, won Best Actress. More awards were to follow but although Oldman hoped that Nil by Mouth would be “my path off… and the beginning of a directing career so I could retire the acting”, it was not to be. Other scripts and projects, including a long gestated biopic about the life of photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, have stalled over the years.

Extras on this crisply restored BFI Blu-Ray include deleted scenes, storyboards and a detailed audio commentary. There are unimpressively shot interviews with Oldman, Urbanski, Winstone and Charlie Creed-Miles, who made his acting debut as a young drug addict. Fresh out of drama school, he clearly benefitted from a director who understood that long rehearsals, on the actual sets and locations, would produce the most realistic, convincing performances when the camera rolled.

Oldman was thwarted in his plan to cast his own mother in Nil by Mouth, but we get his monochrome rushes for an unfinished documentary he made about her. Asked why he didn’t take a role himself (it would doubtless have made the film more bankable), he describes his pleasure in not having to change into costume and be able instead to concentrate on directing. The result is an extraordinarily powerful film that has stood the test of time rather better than some of the movies in which Oldman starred to raise funds. Let’s hope he gets back behind the camera in the future.

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