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Nil By Mouth is Gritty, but Engrossing

By Yaron Koren
Staff Reporter

From first-time writer and director Gary Oldman comes Nil By Mouth, a personal and painful look at the crises of everyday life of a working-class British family. This is about as far removed a film as possible from the formulaic action pictures that Oldman is generally associated with. It is vividly human film, attacking head-on issues such as drug abuse, domestic violence and co-dependency.

If you're looking for escapist entertainment, look elsewhere. There is no sugarcoating here. The set looks drab, and the entire movie is shot on a shaky close-up camcorder for a documentary feel. The thick dialect of the British working-class isn't watered-down, nor is it (as this viewer would have wished) sometimes subtitled.

Nil By Mouth cuts back and forth through the lives of the members of the extended family. Valery (Kathy Burke, whose performance won her Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival) is a 30-ish housewife, still bearing a sense of innocence and hopefulness about the world despite being married to Raymond (Ray Winstone), who is foul-mouthed, abusive, and frighteningly remorseless. Winstone delivers a tough, brilliant performance, projecting an unexpected tenderness throughout. He makes it easy to forget, at least in the beginning, that the man is a walking time-bomb.

Raymond ruins people's lives: in a rage, he kicks Valery's younger brother, Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), out of the house after finding out that Billy is a drug addict. Billy is then forced to live on the streets. And Raymond abuses Valery so violently that at one point that she is forced to feign an accident so her friends won't see her battered. Did I mention that she's pregnant at the time? By this point in the movie we are ready to dismiss Raymond as human garbage. Then, unexpectedly, Raymond has a touching confessional scene in which he breaks down while talking to a friend about his distant, tyrannical father. All of a sudden we understand the wounded human behind the monster. And we can then sympathize with Valery's agonized decision about whether to leave him or not.

Nil By Mouth is not for the faint-hearted. The events in the film pretty much run the gamut of horrible things people can do to one another. Everyone's speech is a constant stream of profanity, from the 20-something Billy to Valery's 60-year-old mother. The movie could have been improved with a little more focus on the positive aspects of their life instead of wallowing in the exploitation

Is this an authentic portrait or is it more a compressed, hyper-real exaggeration of the problems that routinely face the working poor? If this movie really reflects the reality that Gary Oldman experienced growing up, it's amazing that he was able to break out of the poverty cycle and become a success. But, of course, that may be part of the point.

The really fresh thing about Nil By Mouth is the dignity it invests in its characters, without playing down their gaping flaws. These are a bunch of losers, in life and in love, and yet we see the down-to-earth affection that passes between them. Much of the credit for this goes to the remarkable cast, who don't have a false moment between them. If you can stomach the heavy drug use, violence and profanity, there is a lot in this movie that is worth recommending.

Eric Clapton provides the bluesy score, which is notable for its spareness and restraint.