Monday, August 20, 2007

NIL BY MOUTH - Fucking amazing, bloody petrifying

When you go out, you go out with your mates, and when you are in, you're pissed out and your brain's asleep in front of the fucking television. I turn the television off, go up to bed, you follow me up at three o'clock in the morning stinking of booze. That's what I get.The East End of London is an impoverished district with above-average levels of crime and unemployment. There are many films and even a long-running BBC TV serial that aim to show us life on the bread-line but they all end up humourising or glamourising the criminal element. Nearly forty years passed between Dick van Dyke's piss-poor screever and Vinnie Jones' 2-D Bullet Tooth Tony, but Hollywood's understanding had advanced not one iota.

NIL BY MOUTH stands alone as an uncompromising vision of life in smoke-filled pubs, grim Soho strip clubs, and dingy council flats. It's a world of "old-fashioned" family values. Where mouthy criminal patriarchs abuse women, and young pretenders are inducted into drug abuse, petty crime and jail time.

The movie opens in a smoky, dark, crowded pub. Men are sitting around drinking, telling darkly funny tales about fucking women, taking drugs and doing time. The gang is dominated by Ray (Ray Winstone) and Mark (Jamie Forman). Ray's wife Val (Kathy Burke) sits in another part of the pub with Ray's sister Janet (Laila Morse) and his mother and their friends. As the film progresses we learn that Janet suffers from domestic abuse and the dramatic tension rests not just in waiting for Ray to lose it, but in watching Janet's reaction to it. Will she carry on covering up for him or will she finally say something.

I admire actor-director Gary Oldman for refusing to dress up the East End and for refusing to dilute the thick East End accents and filthy language. I admire his evocation of mood with the dingy colour palette and claustrophobic settings. I also admire his skill in making the audience think it's seen more brutal violence than it really has. In two pivotal scenes we follow Ray's body into an act of violence but the camera then subtly shifts away. Our memory tricks us into remembering because of the graphic injuries his victims' sustain. Most of all, we see the psychological impact of the abuse in an outstanding dialogue between Ray and Janet near the end of the film. It's an excepionally credible and moving piece of writing, not to mention the career-best performances by Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke, who was duly rewarded at Cannes. But be warned, if you found the expletive in the title of this review offensive, NIL BY MOUTH is not for you.

NIL BY MOUTH played Cannes and Toronto 1997 and is now available on DVD.

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