Clint Eastwood’s back-catalogue alone is enough to show that when actors try their hand at directing the results can be impressive. When Gary Oldman wrote and directed Nil By Mouth however, the results were outstanding: BAFTA adjudged it one of the 100 best films of all-time, and awarded it the Best Screenplay and Best British Film accolade in 1998. In big budget films, London is so often a city of glamourous criminals and slick wise-cracking ‘blokes’, written to please an American stereotype of Brits. In Nil By Mouth, working-class London comes alive.
Nil By Mouth is an utterly convincing, unflinching depiction of a poor family’s life in South London, tainted as it is by crime, violence and degenerate relationships. But despite the haunting portrayals of domestic violence and drug abuse, what leaves the biggest impression is the sheer quality of acting and filmmaking throughout. Oldman provides unremitting realism without ever crossing the line into bleakness and negativity — his characters might sometimes satisfy their need for escapism by shooting up heroin, but at other times they will do it with amusing, reminiscent conversations.
The film involves crime, but does not glorify it. In a refreshing difference to other films that have dealt with London’s drug trade (Lock, Stock; RocknRolla), there is nothing glamorous or exciting about these character’s criminal activities. Oldman observes his characters with both gritty, raw realism and an astute moral compass, in proportions which recall Scorsese’s Mean Streets.
Ray (Ray Winstone) is fascinating. We are not encouraged to sympathise with or despise him, and each viewer will have to make up their mind based on Winstone’s excellent, complex performance. His horrendous actions mean that he isn’t easy to sympathise with, but considering the brutality of the violence we see him enact, he becomes a surprisingly interesting and complex character, who we crave to understand more about. Ray is certainly not the moral write-off that a wife-beater would be in the hands off lesser filmmakers.
Perhaps this is partly because the overriding emphasis is not on the things done but the environment they are done in. Ultimately this is a film about a place, the way of life within that place, and the things people do to escape its unpleasant aspects. Setting is therefore very important to Oldman. Bleak urban landscapes are filmed through small, dirty windows, or through the bars of an iron climbing frame outside a tower block. Most scenes take place in small, claustrophobic rooms, in which the close-up camera work leaves the viewer with little space to breath. Overall, the sense of imprisonment is expertly orchestrated, and reinforces the script’s feel of cyclicality and entrapment.
The script also has a vibrant, inconquerable sense of humour. The characters are so complexly cast that they are sometimes at their most likable and funny in the aftermath of their darkest moments. But humour is used far more originally than just to make the audience laugh. In Oldman’s hands, humour is made menacing: it is an instrument, and an indication, of power. Ray’s loud, uncouth laughter is the most obvious sign of his dangerous strength, whilst the quieter sniggers of those around him emphasise their weakness.
Nil By Mouth should be more celebrated than it is. It is certainly difficult to watch some of the grittier, darker scenes. But these are more than worth the reward. In a fascinating setting, Oldman has created some funny, complex and believable characters, and Ray Winstone portrays one of them unforgettably.
Nil By Mouth (1997), directed by Gary Oldman, is available on DVD from 20th Century Fox, certificate 18.