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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

AFI/BFI #212: Nil By Mouth (1997)

Director: Gary Oldman
Writer: Gary Oldman
Composer: Eric Clapton
AFI Rank:  -
BFI Rank: 97


Try and remember the happiest day of your life. That day that was utterly perfect, that every time you think of it brings a smile to your face. Maybe it was and event like the birth of a child or your wedding day, or lying on a beach in Bali watching the sunset, or the day you won the lottery, or… well you get the picture. Now hold that memory until you are just as happy as that moment. Done? OK, now you are ready to watch Nil By Mouth, because trust me, if you watch it at any other time you risk descending into a seriously deep depression that you will possibly need medication to escape from. Ok, I exaggerate, but this is an unbelievably harrowing film. To call it entertainment would be misleading.

The film was Gary Oldman's debut as both a writer and director, although he has yet to follow it up. And what a debut it is. Fittingly for a film centered around family, it is based loosely on Oldman's own childhood in London and dedicated to his father. His sister, Laila Morse, made her screen debut although you wouldn't guess it. Her stage name being an anagram of the italian for My Sister, Mia Sorella. Their mother even provides the vocals for the grandmother's song at the end of the film.

There is very little story here and the script focuses more on capturing the painful realism of a family being torn apart from within in slow and uncomfortable detail. If you are easily offended by language then steer clear as that realism requires more profanity per inch of celluloid than any other non-documentary film in history. The F-word is used 522 times, thats over 4 times a minute. The C-word a mere 82.

The film was produced by Luc Besson who had worked with Oldman on Leon (The Professional) and The Fifth Element. Oldman had likely met experienced Ron Fortunato's cinematography on Basquait and brought him on board. His work here is exquisite. Combined with the intimate hand held camera work and Brad Fuller's documentary style editing, the result is frighteningly real without lapsing into that pseudo-documentary style that would have diminished its impact.

Charlie Creed-Miles, Jamie Foreman and Ray Winstone

The real stars of the film are Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke. Coming onto Nil By Mouth most of their experience had been on television. Oldman gives them great material and they use it to act one another off the screen at every opportunity. Ray was nominated for a BAFTA and won a British Independent Film Award for his portrayal of Ray. He is frightening, angry, vulnerable and everything in between. Kathy Burke as Valerie gives the performance of her career and similarly got a BAFTA nomination and British Independent Film Award win.

I watched the 2003 US DVD release which is enhanced  for 16:9 rather than the original theatrical 1.66:1. The transfer is beautiful. No sign of a blu-ray release yet but I am not convinced it would benefit much more from it.

The film was still very fresh when the BFI list was made and I do wonder if it would still make the Top 100 today. Depending on your point of view it has either become much more or much less relevant in the last decade. As the BFI list suggests, we british seem to enjoy these gritty realistic working class dramas more than in other parts of the world. Certainly this would never have been made in hollywood and perhaps that alone earns it's place on the list.  It is extremely hard to watch, but I recommend it if only for Ray and Kathy's performances. Make sure you watch it all. Quit too soon and you will wonder what on earth it was all about. Maybe even watch it twice. So find your happy place and pop in the DVD.


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