J.D. Lafrance
Nil by Mouth DVD Review

Nil by Mouth

May 21, 2003

Director: Gary Oldman, ,
Starring: Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Charlie Creed-Miles, Laila Morse, Edna Doré, Chrissie Cotterill, Jon Morrison, Jamie Foreman, Steve Sweeney, Terry Rowley, Sam Miller, Leah Fitzgerald, Gerry Bromfield, Neil Maskell, Sid Golder, ,

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DVD Review

J.D. Lafrance

‘Nil by Mouth is my blues, if you like, about what was outside my window. The film is very much based on my experiences and impressions growing up and living in London’. Gary Oldman.

In his directorial debut ‘Nil by Mouth’, Gary Oldman depicts the hardships of a dysfunctional South London family. Domestic violence, drug abuse and alcoholism all feature in this powerful portrayal of working class life. The film does not simply tell a story, but tackles some difficult underlying issues of modern society. Through the dissolution of a family unit, and subsequent breakdown in communication, Oldman presents a picture that has been referred to as ‘a realistic look at modern day England, rarely depicted in films’.

‘Nil by Mouth’ clearly focuses on the effect issues such as domestic violence and drug abuse has on children. Presumably the events in the film relate in some way to Oldman’s own childhood, whether he experienced it himself or observed the effect it had on other people. One scene in the film might shed light on this particular issue. After a particularly harrowing scene in which Ray (Ray Winston) flips on his brother-in-law Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) and gives him a beating, Billy leaves the flat. In the playground downstairs is a man with his son. Billy asks him for cigarette, to which he obliges, but then pushes his luck, asking to borrow a pound. The man refuses, taking his son with him. Interestingly the boy’s name turns out to be Gary. Obviously, I could be reading too much into the scene, but as they leave we are given a very personal shot of the young boy looking at Billy as he walks away with his dad. Due to the emphasis on the ‘child’s viewpoint’ in the film, I’m tempted to say that this may have been an actual experience of Oldman’s which in part inspired him to make the film. The boy looks very young, perhaps what Oldman’s trying to get at is that, whether it is him or not, one of this child’s first memories is of a teenage junky with a bleeding nose begging his dad for a pound. That really sums up the key message of the film, that growing up in an environment like this really does have a major effect on children.

This idea is reinforced later in the film as Ray describes the relationship he had with his father. In this highly emotive scene we are told the meaning of the title. Ray describes the sign above his father’s bed while he was in hospital, reading ‘Nil by Mouth’, meaning he shouldn’t be fed through his mouth. ‘Nothing went in, and nothing went out’ says Ray as he describes a relationship full of neglect. This has clearly manifested itself in Ray’s violent personality and shows the possible effects that a troubled upbringing can have on a person.

As the film progresses, the characters become increasingly isolated from one another, showing the limited communication skills between the generations and the sexes, which can often result in neglect and abuse. The segregation between the genders is never more apparent than in one of the later scenes of the film, as the women hold up together, with Ray trying to kick down the front door.

‘Nil by Mouth’ is shot in perfect style with the theme, the child’s perspective in a dysfunctional family. Oldman often shoots in a very naturalistic fashion, giving the audience a kind of presence within the scene. This is down to the rather raw jerky footage which seems to respond accordingly as the action unfolds. The horrific beating of Valerie by Ray is made all the more vivid as it is filmed through a pane of glass, as the camera seems to duck and hide. The glass may symbolise a degree of separation between the violence in the adjacent room and the child watching, as the child is never actually at risk, but is subjected to confusion and psychological harm as a result.

The amount of unsavoury language in ‘Nil by Mouth’ might seems unnecessary and excessive (One website counted the number of “F**KS” as 587!). But whereas the dialogue at the beginning of the film is rather out of place with the actors seemingly trying to out swear each other, by the end it becomes much more directed and fitting to the action. Eric Clapton’s soundtrack is fitting, with a mixture of slow blues and blues-rock numbers. The casting is superb, offering a cast able to handle their individual characters and also play out the complex relationship between them. Particularly notable are Ray Winston and Kathy Burke for ‘Ray’ and ‘Valerie’.

No Special Features.

Gary Oldman is better known as an actor in big Hollywood pictures such as ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, ‘The Fifth Element’ and ‘Hannibal’. But his debut in the director’s chair is both refreshing, and extremely promising. This film is deeply moving, but most convincing of all is its honesty and a real sense of social consciousness. ‘Nil by Mouth’ makes a welcome break from more recent commercially released British films; and it’s good to see a film that doesn’t present the British as a novelty just to impress our friends across the pond.

Although the first hour may be less engaging on first viewing, the film makes up for it as Oldman’s script really fleshes out the characters later on. In terms of watch-ability, the film has a lot of depth to it which might not be apparent on first viewing it. But it has grown on my and continues to do so the more I think about it. This is a brilliant, character focused movie. Well worth a try for anyone.


J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance


Rating: 91%



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