To date the one and only film directed by Gary Oldman, Nil by Mouth was inspired by the world Oldman grew up in, although he has denied that the abusive man played by Ray Winstone is based on his own dad. It’s set in 1990s South London, and Oldman put a lot of his own money into the project. Luc Besson also put a fair amount in, having gotten to know him during the making of Leon—Oldman only agreed to star in The Fifth Element so Besson would co-finance this film.
It’s kind of like a nastier Mike Leigh film, and of course Oldman’s first prominent film role was in Leigh’s Meantime. A household in South London is dominated by Raymond, who’s a monstrous prick, a role Winstone is fantastically good in. It’s definitely in the lineage of Leigh, Ken Loach, and Alan Clarke, with a gritty realism underpinning the story. The story, such as it is, moves between the characters and how they connect.
It doesn’t really have much of a narrative, instead being snapshots of the characters and what they get up to, their problems, and the conflicts between them. Raymond is into coke, Billy into heroin, and Billy gets thrown out of the house for stealing drugs from Raymond. Kathy Burke plays Billy’s sister Valerie, who is also Raymond’s wife. Ray is also incredibly abusive towards Valerie and there is some hard-hitting sequences of domestic violence towards her.
This film is what really made Winstone known as an actor outside of Britain. He was well-known in the UK because of Scum, but hadn’t gotten much traction in the US—before this, he was best known for the cult favourite Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. He’s fantastic here, as you would expect, turning in a portrait of a very nasty person. It’s pretty brutal, and delivers a good slice of that side of working-class life in Britain. Burke is also very good, and she won Best Actress at Cannes on the back of it.
Some of the cinematography is not that great—for me it leaves a lot to be desired. But it definitely is a unique film, quite a statement from Oldman in a debut feature as a writer/director. It’s a shame that for whatever reason, he hasn’t gone on to direct more. It would be interesting to see what he might do with a leaner script, because he’s clearly a guy with some talent behind the camera.
Nil by Mouth is an uncompromising film, sometimes to a fault. But one of the perks of being a big movie star like Oldman is that when you decide to make a film yourself, you can have complete creative control, for better or worse. It’s become a bit of a cult classic, and while it doesn’t grab me the way it clearly does others, I do respect Nil by Mouth a great deal. Oldman’s uncompromising vision of the world that he has his characters inhabit is worth seeing.
However, I could have completely done without the Eric Clapton score but then again, I could do without Clapton’s existence on this planet! I do have a fondness for the film The Hit which he did scores and it works, despite his horrible wankery. Hopefully some day BFI might do a Blu-Ray release of that.
There’s a bunch of extras on BFI re-release. Oldman was heavily involved with the restoration and this Blu-Ray release, and it looks as good here as it possibly could after some considerable cleaning up. Oldman and producer Douglas Urbanski recorded a brand new commentary track, a lengthy conversation between Oldman and film critic Geoff Andrew, plus interviews with Winstone, Urbanski, Charlie Creed Miles (who plays Billy) and casting director Sue Jones are included in the extras, as is some footage for a never-completed documentary, Mother, about Oldman’s mother. Nearly 40 minutes of deleted scenes, stills gallery and production materials are also on the disk, and for all those Terence Davies heads, so is his 1976 student film, Children. As well as the new trailer for the theatrical re-release, the disc comes with a lengthy booklet featuring new writing from Urbanski, Kat Ellinger, Philip Kemp, Jason Wood and BFI production editor Lou Thomas; archival pieces about the film from Time Out and Sight and Sound; and never-before-seen original storyboards.