LONDON — It's rare for the British film industry to welcome a debutante writer-director with an assured talent and a distinctive, fluid visual style.
It's even more notable when such a person emerges from the ranks of British actors who make a handsome living in Hollywood by playing over-the-top psychopathic villains with English accents in big-budget but formulaic action-adventure films.
Gary Oldman, then, has caused a stir in his native Britain. His first film, "Nil by Mouth," set in Deptford, a deprived area of southeast London where he grew up, is a grueling account of a dysfunctional working-class family beset by alcoholism, drug addiction, petty crime and domestic violence all within its own ranks. At last year's Cannes Film Festival "Nil by Mouth," which opens Friday, won lavish praise and one of its cast, Kathy Burke, was voted best actress for portraying a battered wife. The British were surprised: No one had imagined Oldman capable of such work.
It's understandable. Until "Nil by Mouth," Oldman was regarded as a hugely gifted actor, remembered as self-destructive punk rocker Sid Vicious in "Sid and Nancy" and gay playwright Joe Orton in "Prick Up Your Ears." But more recently he has also become infamous as a perennial underachiever on film, and in person as a hell-raising alcoholic. A man, then, who seemed to be wasting his talent.
"Nil by Mouth" has done much to redress this view, and there are few signs of dissipation about Oldman these days. He strides briskly into a London hotel room and offers a firm handshake. Clear-eyed, pencil-thin and alert, he has a spring in his step, more than a trace of Deptford in his accent, and a vigorous candor in his conversation.
He is guarded about just one topic: the length of time he has been alcohol-free. "I've been in recovery, umm, a while," he says vaguely. But given that one underlying theme of "Nil by Mouth" is the recurrent nature of addictive behavior, one sees why he might feel wary of triumphantly claiming to have licked a destructive habit.
The head of the unfortunate family in his film is a violent, profane, alcoholic drug-pusher (Ray Winstone) who belittles and brutalizes his wife (Burke) and her junkie son (Charlie Creed-Miles). To call the story harrowing viewing is an understatement; yet in writing it, Oldman drew on his own experience.
His own father, if not violent, was alcoholic; he left the family when Oldman was 7, leaving them destitute. And Oldman in his turn became drawn to the heavy-drinking pub culture of south London.
"I was pushed into that pub at 14, 15, and it was: play darts, tell dirty jokes, enter that whole world," he recalls. "You're supposed to stand at the bar and be a bloke. You don't cry or show emotions." He adds that this bottled-up inarticulateness (to which the film's title alludes) is often expressed in violent, drunken rage.
This left its mark on him: "It's extraordinary how you can fit into the shoes of the past," he says. "You look at your life and your father's, and think, that happened to us both, and that, and that--and I'm repeating it. I'm like a blueprint. I'm turning into, or have become, my dad."
Certainly his past is checkered. He has been married to two actresses, Lesley Manville (they have a son) and Uma Thurman; he was once engaged to Isabella Rosellini, and is now wed to American model Donya Fiorentino, who bore him a son in the fall. He admits, laughing mirthlessly, that he was in his share of abusive relationships.
"You don't have to throw a punch," he says, looking somber. "I remember a dreadful, ugly argument in a restaurant in Dallas which ended with me tipping a glass of water over someone's head. Then in a fit of drunken madness, I thumped my hand down on to a wine glass, broke it and needed stitches in my hand. But that water hurt [the other person] a lot more than my hand hurt." He sighs. "It was such a terrible thing to do to someone."
One can see that Oldman's past might be a rich seam from which to mine a screenplay about the damage alcoholics wreak on those around them. ("I wrote the first draft in five weeks," he says. "I'd talked about it for ages, so when I finally sat down to write, it just poured out.") But the real surprise of "Nil by Mouth" is the confidence of his directing and the vindication of his risky choices.
Many realist British films about working-class life (by directors like Ken Loach) have a static, detached quality; audiences can feel distanced from the characters. Even Mike Leigh uses the finely observed performances of actors to draw us closer to characters, rather than his own camera. But Oldman didn't have social realism in mind.
"I didn't want it to look that way, and certainly not a slick, fashionable, fast-cut film like a Tarantino or 'Trainspotting,' " he says. "People have said 'Nil by Mouth' feels like a documentary, but with documentaries you keep the camera in one position, hold it wide and have everything happen in the frame. Which I didn't do.