Nil By Mouth

on February 06, 1998 by Wade Major
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   Gary Oldman has worked with some of the best and most commercial directors in Hollywood, so it may come as a surprise to some that his semi-autobiographical directing/writing debut would instead cast a nod to the work of gritty English realists like Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Gritty English realism, however, is where Oldman honed his craft, and his debut as a filmmaker, though imperfect, does the tradition proud.
   A sort of South London version of "Once Were Warriors," "Nil by Mouth" centers on a typical working-class English family, consisting of a thuggish oaf named Ray (Ray Winstone), his world-weary wife Valerie (Cathie Burke) and Valerie's junkie brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles). Photographed in gritty, hand-held super 16mm, Oldman's portrait is a harsh one, pulling no punches in its representation of the violence, profanity, blood, sweat and tears that there constitute daily life. Virtually every imaginable major social ill, and more than a few minor ones, are thrown into the pot at various times, from drug addiction to spousal abuse to theft and worse. When Valerie finally confides to Ray that all she wants is to be able to look back in her old age and say that she'd had "a bit of fun," it's impossible not to be touched by the struggle to obtain so simple a wish.
   Elsewhere, though, the film fails to live up to its emotional billing, with Oldman exhibiting a tendency to allow scenes to drag on far longer than necessary. The script's episodic nature is similarly problematic, but audiences might warm to the approach as they grow accustomed to the characters. Other noteworthy contributions include Eric Clapton's warmly subdued score and a colorful cast of outstanding supporting players, as well as agile "on the zoom" camerawork by cinematographer Ron Fortunato.    Starring Ray Winstone, Charlie Creed-Miles and Cathie Burke. Directed and written by Gary Oldman. Produced by Luc Besson, Douglas Urbanski and Gary Oldman. A Sony Classics release. Drama. Rated R for graphic drug use, non-stop strong language, brutal domestic violence and some nudity. Running time: 128 min. Screened at Cannes. Won best actress award (Cathie Burke).
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