Today I want to discuss a bleak, relatively unknown British movie entitled “Nil By Mouth.” It came out in 1997, garnered multiple awards, and only three years ago was voted the 21st best of all British films. So it has not escaped notice, although it is not terribly famous.
The first thing I need to make clear is that this movie is definitely not for everyone. It is dark; horrible and depressing things happen. The language is incredibly vulgar. At one time it was the heavyweight champeen of the world in uses of the f-word in its various forms–428 by one count. It was subsequently surpassed in that regard by “Summer of Sam,” but when it comes to utterances per minute of film it still may hold pride of place even half a generation after its debut. So consider yourself forewarned. This is not family viewing, nor is it viewing for a lot of adults. Count the cost.
“Nil By Mouth” is very bleak. I first heard of the film years ago, not long after its release. It sounded like it might be interesting. It was written and directed and produced by Gary Oldman. I think Gary Oldman first came to my attention as the corrupt DEA agent Norman Stansfield in the 1994 film “The Professional.” He played a deliriously and murderously evil man, and I was impressed with his performance. “The Professional” is another bleak film laced with bad language–again not for everyone. (It is also a love story, and love survives even after much violence and death. I repeat: not for everyone.)
“Nil By Mouth” was inspired by the facts of Gary Oldman’s own life. His father was an alcoholic who deserted the family when young Gary was seven.
The discussion which follows will give away part of the plot.
The working class family in “Nil By Mouth” is hugely dysfunctional. Raymond (Ray Winstone) is a drinker, and abusive to his wife Valerie (Kathy Burke). He beats her savagely at one point in the film. As a result she miscarries. She decides to leave him. Kathy’s brother Billy is a drug addict and is likely headed for prison. (Bullseye.) The plot holds together logically, but chaos is the way of life of all these people, and is the true star of the show. Among friends and family, there is no one who has more than a faint clue as to how life could be and should be lived.
It all plays out in unrelieved misery. Kathy and Ray are back together at the end, but we know it will probably be only a temporary peace. More alcohol abuse, more beatings, more drug use are the way the smart money is betting.
What is the value of this film? Well, this really is how life goes on in a very large subsection of British society. If you think I am kidding, please read Theodore Dalrymple’s masterpiece, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass (2001) which came out just four years after “Nil By Mouth.” It confirms that the behavior in the film is the behavior that goes on in real life for many people in the England of our era. (We in the U.S. have no such problems, of course.)
Gary Oldman, born March 21, 1958, escaped his environment and is “regarded as one of the greatest actors of his generation” (Wikipedia). Well, he sort of escaped, anyway. He has been married five times; that’s not an encouraging sign. He, like his father, became an alcoholic. It seems he is in recovery, living a teetotal lifestyle now, and quite willing to praise Alcoholics Anonymous for being crucial to his sobriety. So he escaped, but not without lingering demons.
Kathy Burke won the Best Actress award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of Valerie. It was well-deserved, and the other players in the film are also superb. The film won, or was nominated for, many awards. However, it is not surprising that so celebrated a film nevertheless runs under the radar of great fame. It is too depressing to gain a large audience. I have seen it only twice, and I suspect it will be quite a while before I get the nerve to watch it again. Or maybe twice in my life will prove enough.
The main takeaway for me is that once you give up the principles of Christianity, the elevator only runs down. These people need to anchor themselves in Christ. But of course that option is never considered.
I don’t necessarily “recommend” the film to anyone else. It is extremely well done, but hard to watch (and to listen to, given the language employed). Understand what you are getting yourself in for if you decide to watch.
“Nil By Mouth” DVDs are not cheap. It will cost you close to $20.00 for a copy at Amazon. Or you can just read Life at the Bottom, which you can find for about $10.00, also at Amazon. The book and the movie are telling the same sad story. The fictional movie wonderfully shows us the consequences of the worldview ruling and ruining countless lives. We see on the screen the world that Theodore Dalrymple describes in print.
Jesus Christ understood the value of fiction in helping us understand real life–thus the parables. He was able to tell his stories without the use of vulgar language, but then I suppose we might agree that He was a greater artist than Gary Oldman, gifted though the latter certainly is.
That is the first of three bleak films I want to review. It is also the bleakest of the three. In weeks to come I hope to discuss “Nebraska” and “Detachment.”