Gary Oldman's raw and vital "Nil by Mouth" takes its curious title from a sign over a London hospital bed. "Nil" means "nothing" in Latin, so the sign simply indicates that the patient in the bed below it must not take any medicines by mouth.
Raymond (Ray Winstone), a burly alcoholic ex-con, mentions the sign while holding forth with his best pal Mark (Jamie Forman) on visiting his dying father, who never expressed any love for him--the abusive parent never said anything loving "by mouth" to the son craving for affection.
At the moment, Raymond is wallowing in self-pity, for he has just beaten his worn-looking wife Valerie (Kathy Burke) more savagely than usual and has wrecked their apartment in a Southeast London housing project. In a lesser film, this scene might have played as if Oldman is excusing Raymond's domestic violence because he felt his father didn't love him. (Hey, lots of us know what unloving fathers are like.)
But Oldman, drawing upon his memories of growing up in impoverished Southeast London in making his writing-directing debut, is projecting a much deeper vision, and the hateful Raymond comes off as a figure of pity.
Oldman loves these blue-collar people--yes, he has real compassion even for Raymond. He knows them through and through, and he is here celebrating their tremendous capacities for endurance, humor and loyalty.
At the same time, Oldman leaves you understanding why he had to get out of Southeast London himself, to move beyond the dead-end, suffocating routine of spending the better part of your life drinking ale--or stronger--and chain-smoking at the rowdy neighborhood pub. ("Nil by Mouth" is very strong stuff, in its violence and in its language, and is definitely not for everyone.)
The linchpin of Ray's family is his mother-in-law Jan (Laila Morse, Oldman's sister, who has never before acted), a plump, middle-aged, blond factory worker who may be the only one of her relatives who actually has a job. (You can't rightly call these people working-class anymore--the chronically unemployed is more like it.)
Jan lives in the projects with her feisty mother (Edna Dore) and worries about Valerie and her 20ish son Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), who's taking heroin and who's just had his nose smashed by Raymond, a man of truly terrifying rages.
What Oldman does very well is to evoke a certain kind of mentality that allows his people to seek help only as the very last resort. When Billy shoots up right in front of Jan, she's upset but doesn't take action--not because she's in any way stupid but because she doesn't think it would do any good.
Similarly, neither Valerie nor any of her relatives reach out to any agency in regard to the insanely jealous Ray, with his hair-trigger raging. Among themselves, they circle the wagons to protect the battered Valerie, but none of them even thinks of calling the cops. These are people who have no faith in the system; they have only one another.
As an actor of intensity and versatility himself, Oldman not surprisingly molds his cast into a thoroughly convincing ensemble, with Burke, who won the best actress prize at Cannes for her performance, revealing Valerie to be a woman of more self-knowledge than you at first realize.
Beyond that, Oldman, working with ace cameraman Ron Fortunato, has a real feel for the cinematic, and "Nil by Mouth" has a driving, jagged style that is complemented by Eric Clapton's often melancholy score. Oldman's key achievement is to make you feel for people you wouldn't want to know in real life.
* MPAA rating: R, for graphic drug use, nonstop strong language, brutal domestic violence and some nudity. Times guidelines: In language and physical violence the film is savage and entirely inappropriate for youngsters.
'Nil by Mouth'
Ray Winstone: Raymond
Kathy Burke: Valerie
Charlie Creed-Miles: Billy
Laila Morse: Janet
Jamie Forman: Mark
A Sony Pictures Classics presentation. Writer-director Gary Oldman. Producers Luc Besson, Douglas Urbanski, Oldman. Cinematographer Ron Fortunato. Editor Brad Fuller. Costumes Barbara Kidd. Music Eric Clapton. Production designer Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski. Art director Luanna Hanson. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.
* In general release.