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Brutal Realism Hard To Watch In ‘Nil By Mouth’

Fri., March 13, 1998

Cursing, cursing, shooting drugs, cursing, wife beating, more drugs, cursing, cursing.

That’s a rough synopsis of Gary Oldman’s brutal directorial debut, “Nil by Mouth.”

Set in working-class South London, it is beyond gritty, a nonstop barrage of foul language and violent, self-destructive behavior that is frankly hard to watch.

Sure this reality exists, but to witness it for over two hours on the big screen is psychological torture. Ultimately, that is testament to the honesty of the performances, and therefore Oldman’s directing talent, but I’m not sure people either need or want to be subjected to this kind of assault.

Consider the players: Raymond (Ray Winstone), an abusive husband whose rage is triggered at the slightest provocation; Valerie (Kathy Burke), his beaten-down wife; Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), Valerie’s brother, a heroin addict; Janet (Laila Morse), Valerie and Billy’s mother, a decent woman who’s always there for her deeply troubled kids.

Raymond appears from the first frames, foul-mouthed and obnoxious, telling his mates anecdotes in a thick British accent that takes concentration to comprehend. The male characters dominate the story, which is too bad, because when the focus switches briefly to Valerie, her mother, and her grandmother, you can finally take a breath and the movie becomes infinitely more watchable.

These women are earthy, even rude themselves, but have a kind of grace. One scene that sticks in my mind is Janet taking time in the midst of all this anguish to smell the freshness of her laundry as she folds it. Amazingly, this is Morse’s first acting role.

Burke was named best actress at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival.

That Oldman has a deep dark sensibility is no surprise. He is typically called on to play the villain, from Count Dracula, to Lee Harvey Oswald, to the Russian hostagetaker in “Air Force One.”

He wrote the screenplay for this movie, drawing from his own experiences growing up in a South London neighborhood, where his father was a welder.

Perhaps Oldman intended to make his audience feel viscerally what these people are going through.

To have us know what it’s like to live in bleak urban surroundings, with either a husband whom we fear, or an inner despair that makes us abusive to others, or dependent upon heroin to escape. But it’s a mighty strong dose of reality. Too strong.

xxxx “NIL BY MOUTH” Location: Lincoln Heights Cinema Art Credits: Written and directed by Gary Oldman, starring Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Charlie Creed-Miles Running time: 2:08 Rating: R

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Nil by Mouth:” Kevin Thomas/Los Angeles Times: (Gary) Oldman’s key achievement is to make you feel for people you wouldn’t want to know in real life. Janet Maslin/New York Times: Capturing the same brawling realism and transparent machismo that were hallmarks of John Cassavetes’ cinematic benders, Oldman lets his characters posture noisily at first, then begins pulling away layers of self-deception. Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: The one uplifting aspect of the whole depressing thing - and it does boast something resembling a happy ending - is Oldman’s unerring determination to draw moments of human dignity out of lives on the edge of pure, animal wallow. Still, if anyone could ever have used a full monty, it’s the dunderheaded blokes of “Nil by Mouth.” Desson Howe/The Washington Post: The film has an impressive, yet disturbing rawness. But in a moviegoing world that has become drowned in pat, formulaic storytelling, this kind of immediate experience breaks through like a bar fight. Whatever you make of it, “Nil by Mouth” is compelling viewing.


 

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