ByCraig Whyel, writer at
Film & TV news, previews and commentary
Craig Whyel

When actor Gary Oldman does things, he does them extremely well. While he has driven that point home many times, he also did the very same in his film writing and directorial debut, Nil by Mouth (1997).

Nil by Mouth is a common phrase that is used in UK hospitals to remind staff that a patient is not to eat food, before testing or surgery. Not sure what the intention was by the title but I suspect it is a metaphor as to how little comfort comes the characters’ way.

Though Oldman didn’t claim it to be autobiographical, there was some inference on his part during promotional interviews for the film that the characters were based on people involved in his rather dystopian youth .

Starring Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast) and Kathy Burke (Absolutely Fabulous) the story took place in the cockney working class dregs of South East London where “ducking’ and diving’” (petty criminality) were highly commonplace along with heaping helps of alcohol and drug abuse as well as violence.

Ray (Winstone) and Valerie (Burke) are married and live in a dump on a manor (known as “the projects” in the USA) along with their young daughter and Val’s drug-addict brother, Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles).

Things are never well in their household as Ray’s drinking and criminal schemes with his friends lead to dead ends. Notable amongst his tiny entourage is best bloke, Mark, played with aplomb by Jamie Foreman. His subsequent career roles were distinctive in the playing of tough guys and gangsters.

Perhaps he influenced by his real-life father, Freddie “Brown Bread Fred” Foreman, a renowned UK convicted criminal and alleged gangster.

The film was further propelled by the presence of two fantastic supporting performances. The first was turned in by Laila Morse, Gary Oldman’s sister, who played Janet, Valerie’s mom. Janet was the only member of the family with a job and easily established. The other was by the late Edna Dore who played Kath, Valerie’s grandmother.

Both actresses demonstrated unmeasurable world-weariness and toughness.

There was nothing romantic about the lives of these people, especially with regard to domestic violence. Oldman went all out to be as “non-Hollywood” as possible with such difficult subject matter. The result was an unflinching bluntness that was uncomfortable to watch.

Burke, as Valerie, was beaten two ways: horribly and often. She was knocked around like a punching bag with a pulse.

Winstone, meanwhile, was a raging animal. The actor, who was an accomplished amateur boxer in his youth, was especially convincing with the use of his fists in having “straightners” (fights).

The film, Gary Oldman, Ray Winstone, and Kathy Burke won a number of British and international film awards along with a slew of nominations.

It was distinctive among trivia fanatics for using the most famous swear word in the world over five hundred times, something of a record that stood for a few years.

While its straightforwardness and brutality wasn’t for everyone, the film was critically-acclaimed around the world.

Janet Maslin, in The New York Times, likened Nil by Mouth to a John Cassavetes’ film in the way that characters “posture noisily at first” then pull away “layers of self-deception.”

Neil Jefferies of Empire Online said that the film will “stun and numb in equal measure.”

Roger Ebert noted “the film’s portrayal of South London life is both unflinching and observant.” He also shared that in a conversation with Gary Oldman about the film, Oldman said that a chair used in the production was the same chair that his own father sat in when drinking. Ebert further noted that Oldman dedicated Nil by Mouth to his mother. So, as mentioned before, there was clearly some influence out of the filmmaker’s personal life.

One last note: The film’s bluesy soundtrack was produced by Eric Clapton.

If you respect UK cinema, and you like your dramas gritty then this is a must see for you. It’s not easy to watch but it is excellently done.


Latest from our Creators