Published February 1, 1998
Nil By Mouth by Gary Oldman is a surprise. You would think that Hollywood’s favorite maniac villain — along with Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken — would have been infected with the Hollywood slicks, but here, in his first appearance as director, he is doing something altogether different — that is a sort of cinéma verité look at the criminal subculture of his native turf in working class South London. As a regular reader of the splendid Dr Theodore Dalrymple’s column, “If Symptoms Persist. . .,” in the British Spectator, I am inclined to believe that Gary gets it pretty close to right about South London, but in any case he presents us with a series of memorable (and often deeply depressing) images of the way women live with a certain kind of male solidarity—and the language, the jokes and the booze that keep that solidarity solid.
I imagine that men like Raymond (Ray Winstone), Mark (Jamie Forman) and Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) are the 20th century heirs of that “scum of the earth” whose presence in his army so terrified the Duke of Wellington. These were the men whose rowdy camaraderie beat Napoleon and built the British Empire. Not surprisingly, however, Oldman’s contemporary perspective on them is essentially a feminist one, and the really stunning performance comes from Kathy Burke as Raymond’s much abused wife, Valerie. But just as we expect the movie to turn into the usual sort of feminist propaganda, Oldman ends his movie on the completely unexpected note of comity between men and women, which produces a sense of the social cohesion that must have kept this culture going, in spite of violence and misery, for so long.
Oldman also has a cockney way of his own with gallows humor. At one point when Billy turns to his mother, Janet (played by the director’s sister under the name of Laila Morse), for what is obviously the umpteenth time for money to buy heroin with, she says to him: “Just don’t make a habit of it.” Some of the jokes are hard to catch because they whiz by at such a rate, and in the argot of South London, but enough get through to make this as funny a film as, though also much more grimly authentic than, The Full Monty or Trainspotting. At times Raymond’s brutal treatment of Valerie seems unnecessarily graphic, and the scene in which he talks about his own father’s neglect of him and his mother and unwittingly describes himself is a little too pat. But, in their context, even these scenes do have a purpose.
And, most astonishingly, their purpose is not just to sell the feminist agenda. Even the memorable images of four generations of women huddled frightened in the kitchen as a drunken and violent Raymond rings the bell, or of Valerie’s grandmother (played by Oldman’s mother) singing Jerome Kern’s lovely “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man” from Showboat down at the pub one night do not have the bitter ironic edge to them that we would expect. Instead, they look almost like heroic emblems of a cultural continuity that has nothing to do with ideology.