Nil By Mouth (1997) – Film Review
Director: Gary Oldman
Cast: Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Charlie Creed-Miles
By Sarah Morgan
What constitutes a ‘good film’?
That perhaps depends on personal taste. Looking at the recently released list of the supposedly greatest films of all time, the results of a survey of critics carried out every 10 years by Sight and Sound magazine, you might guess the most important aspects were innovative camerawork, beautifully shot scenes and plots that are almost wilfully obscure.
Others with a more down-to-earth approach may suggest that having an ability to entertain or inform should take precedence. While Nil by Mouth probably wouldn’t fit easily in the former category, it would certainly sit well in the latter.
The film is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a lavish DVD and Blu-ray release, but it’s hard to imagine after an initial viewing that those who buy a copy will regularly re-watch it. That may sound like a criticism, but it’s not – it’s just that it’s not easy to repeatedly view something that grabs you by the throat and continuously hits you in the guts; which is, in fact, pretty much what happens to Kathy Burke’s character.
At the time she was best known for her comedic roles, but deservedly won Best Actress at Cannes for her heartbreaking performance as Val, who lives on a rundown council estate with her young daughter Michelle and her thuggish husband Raymond. Their lives are dreary, a seemingly endless round of struggling to make ends meet, nights in front of the telly, or drinking to oblivion.
We’re rooting for Val to leave her husband, but even after he relentlessly beats her, causing a miscarriage, we know deep in our soul that she’ll take him back, because she feels there’s nowhere else for her to go.
“Cycle of abuse”
Having grown up in a rundown area where there were few prospects, watching the film inspires feelings of “there but for the grace of God go I”, and probably the cast had similar thoughts – Burke and her fellow working class co-stars Ray Winstone, Laila Morse and Jamie Foreman will have known people like Val and Raymond.
Winstone plays the latter with terrifying ferocity – he is toxic masculinity writ large. You don’t actually see his blows connect with Val, but such is his performance that you think you do, similar to the way that many people believe they’ve seen the cop’s ear being slashed in Reservoir Dogs, even though it never appears on screen.
Morse is, of course, better known these days for playing Big Mo in EastEnders. That was something of a two-dimensional role, but she’s far more impressive here as Val’s long-suffering mother. Both women are trapped in an endless cycle of abuse and poverty they cannot escape.
Morse is also the elder sister of Gary Oldman, who wrote and directed the film. It’s his only such credit; perhaps the experience took too much out of him, but it would be wonderful to see him return behind the camera – providing it didn’t also rob us of his performances in front of it.
The two-disc set is includes a wealth of special features, including an interview with Oldman in which he states once and for all that the central characters are not inspired by his own parents, as some members of the media claimed back in 1997, but rather an event which happened to a family member, and only loosely at that.
Winstone also pops up to discuss why Nil by Mouth was so important to his career. But the film is far more significant than simply serving to give a good actor a much-needed boost. So while I may not return to it for a very long time, there’s no doubt that Nil by Mouth is a ‘good film’ or perhaps even a great one, because it exists to inform by shining a light on an underclass often ignored by wider society.
● Newly remastered in 4K by the BFI National Archive and approved by writer-director Gary Oldman
● Audio commentary by Gary Oldman and Douglas Urbanski
● Setting The Record Straight (2022, 51 mins): Gary Oldman in conversation with film critic Geoff Andrew
● A Slice of Life (2022, 22 mins): Ray Winstone looks back on his Bafta-nominated performance
● Talent is Worth Trusting: Douglas Urbanski on Nil by Mouth (2022, 16 mins): Gary Oldman’s long-time collaborator and the producer of Nil by Mouth discusses how the film came to be made
● Fearing the Worst: Charlie Creed-Miles on Nil by Mouth (2022, 28 mins): the actor discusses his role as Billy, from his audition to some of the key scenes in the film
● People Were Queuing For Any Role (2022, 16 mins): casting director Sue Jones recalls her work on the film
● Mother (1994, 7 mins): the only surviving footage recorded by Gary Oldman for an unrealised documentary about his mother’s life and experiences
● Deleted scenes (1997, 38 mins): a series of deleted scenes selected by Gary Oldman
● Galleries – a selection of stills and rare production materials from Gary Oldman’s personal archive
● Children (1976, 46 mins): written while still a student, Terence Davies’ film has an uncompromising honesty that is echoed in Nil by Mouth
● Trailer (2022)
Nil By Mouth is released on Blu-ray by the BFI, £24.99