No one could accuse Gary Oldman of going with the flow. While British working-class film trades in its hereditary gloom – even Ken Loach is making comedies these days – for perky little numbers custom-built for a swift American pickup (Brassed Off, The Full Monty), Oldman's first directing effort hauls back into the robust miserabilism that's juiced English film from the Angry Young Men movies of the early '60s to Mike Leigh, whose 1983 telefilm, Mean Time, gave Oldman his big acting break. Merrie England, my arse: For those of us who still enjoy a good wallow in the predestined awfulness of life, Nil by Mouth plays almost as nostalgia for Britain in its surly, fatalistic prime, before Thatcherism and Tony Blair bustled in to give capitalism a good name.
The movie opens with a bunch of London lowlifes out-bragging one another in a fugue of profanity at once scabrous and poetic enough to make David Mamet choke. Actually, the scene could be a set piece out of GoodFellas, except that there's no payoff in gunplay and little enough in fistfights. Cruel, anguished, savagely funny, the talk belches forth in this 128-minute slice of Oldman's life growing up in the rough South London borough of New Cross. Nil by Mouth is dedicated to Oldman's father, who must have been a right old piece of work, for the film is defined by absent or abusive dads. At its center is Raymond (played by Ray Winstone, last seen in a similar role in Loach's Ladybird, Ladybird, a film Oldman has doubtless studied closely), a brawling, wife-beating, sniveling son of a bitch who piles booze upon coke upon booze. There's more than one habit being supported in Ray's beleaguered family. His wife, Valerie (Kathy Burke, who won Best Actress at Cannes last year for her performance), wears defeat on her face like makeup. She keeps taking it on the chin from her explosive husband, even when he attacks her younger brother, Billy (a wonderfully feverish Charlie Creed-Miles), who's a blossoming junkie himself and very likely modeled on Oldman in his youth. Valerie's mother, Janet (Laila Morse), screams bloody murder at Billy while financing his addiction, as Ray goes from bad to worse, smashing up his wife and their house until at last she takes a stand of sorts.
An hour of this and you'd be ready to blow your brains out, had the characters – trapped in tight closeup by a mostly hand-held camera – not crept up and lodged their battered selves in your heart. They are who they are, and despite all, they're everything to one another. Unlike Loach, who typically has a cop or a social worker looming on behalf of the repressive state apparatus, Oldman steadfastly avoids social analysis. It's all in the mood: Bathed in blues and grays and Eric Clapton's spare, aching score, the hideous projects achieve a grungy beauty that only heightens our sense of lives coarsened by ugliness and want. Though the movie has its moments of mawkish overkill – in separate scenes Billy and Ray deliver long speeches about the cruelty and neglect their own fathers visited on them – Nil by Mouth is meant less as an indictment than a document of hard-won survival, and for the director, surely, a coming to terms. In a lovely grace note, Valerie, puffy from Ray's last assault and watched by her little girl, takes her grandmother (Edna Dore, who played the comatose old mother in Mike Leigh's High Hopes) in her arms, and the two circle her kitchen in a stiff, gentle dance. By the end of this beautifully observed bummer of a movie, your chin may be resting on your kneecaps, but you will have come to know a world.
NIL BY MOUTH
Written and directed by GARY OLDMAN
Produced by LUC BESSON, DOUGLAS URBANSKI and OLDMAN
Starring RAY WINSTONE, KATHY BURKE, CHARLIE CREED-MILES, LAILA MORSE and EDNA DORE
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
At the Nuart through February 12, at Goldwyn Pavilion thereafter