Given the depressing state of affairs in the UK, Nil by Mouth is an appropriately harrowing British film.
Nil by Mouth is a 1997 drama, written and directed by screen legend Gary Oldman. Is there anything he can’t do? Apart from a consistent American accent, obviously. Oldman uses his experiences growing up on a New Cross council estate to tell the story of a South East London family dealing with addiction, violence and abuse. As the location for Screen Goblin HQ, we can confirm that New Cross is much nicer these days. It has a Subway and everything.
Oldman’s writing is realistic and coarsely funny (until it isn’t). The film contains a record-breaking total of 82 “cunts” (83 including Ray Winstone’s character). Oldman’s direction is equally naturalistic, using tight close-ups to capture every expression on his wonderful actors’ faces.
The performances are so natural and the characters so believable that you forget you’re watching actors. Winstone gives the most traumatic performance I’ve seen since John Travolta in Swordfish, and that was mostly down to Travolta’s hair. Kathy Burke is gut-wrenching as the wife, a world away from the infectious comedy of Kevin and Perry.
There are countless standout scenes (most of them involving Burke), but one highlight sees Steve Sweeney quoting along to Apocalypse Now. This is a descent into hell of a very different but no less devastating kind. The kitchen sink drama is accompanied by a jazzy, soulful soundtrack by Eric Clapton, which seems slightly anachronistic until you remember that Miles Davis called jazz “social music.”
One of the most uncompromisingly brilliant British pictures, this is a tough but rewarding film that cares deeply about its characters, trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of abuse and social neglect that spans generations. With its grim urban setting, challenging subject matter and unflinching scenes of abuse, Nil by Mouth makes Tyrannosaur look like a baby velociraptor.