Is Nil by Mouth the bleakest kitchen-sink drama ever made?

With his directorial debut, Gary Oldman offers a deeply affecting study of addiction and domestic abuse.

Words

William Carroll

Few genres are more recognisably British than the kitchen-sink drama. Since Shelagh Delaney’s play ‘A Taste of Honey’ was adapted in 1961, the genre has become a mainstay of cinema and television in the UK. Typically comprising the impoverished residents of council estates and half-forgotten towns, with Delaney’s Salford famously becoming a symbol of postwar desolation, the kitchen-sink drama makes misery its backdrop and the working class its dramatis personae.

In 1997, Gary Oldman’s directorial debut, Nil by Mouth, grasped the Brit Grit genre by the scruff of its neck and shook loose any redemptive messages it previously held. The result is a film that offers up domestic abuse and drugs with shameless ease, a film that remains hard to watch for its near complete absence of hope.

Following Ray (Ray Winstone), his pregnant wife Val (Kathy Burke) and their immediate and extended family, Oldman explores a grimy, Brutalist London estate with voyeuristic delight as he captures lives on the fringes of destitution. His characters entertain themselves with games of pool in dingy working men’s clubs or by shooting up beneath an overpass, their only pastime is passing the time itself.

Ray is the patriarch of the small, close-knit family, but their true rock is Val’s mum, Janet (played by Oldman’s sister Laila Morse). It is through her eyes that we see the destruction of her heroin-addict son, Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), and it is through her eyes that we watch – powerless to help – as Ray physically and emotionally abuses Val.

A violent, unstable figure of fragile machismo, Winstone’s performance is a sickening case study of a man consumed by his own insecurities, someone who amounts to no more than a string of past criminal charges all resting on a waning reputation among local criminals. Ray finds it easy to indulge his violent past, stopping his car at one point in the film to punch a man on the street before returning nonchalantly to his car. He acts on animalistic impulse, seeing the world in black and white, and Oldman’s screenplay allows him this violent freedom.

Notoriously profane, Oldman’s script contains the word ‘fuck’ no less than 482 times (‘cunt’ features 82 times, a record in film history). A film with such malice and hatred in its lines has not yet found a contemporary successor, nor has anything followed that makes swearing sound so ugly, so primitive. Regardless of what is taken away from viewing Nil by Mouth, no film since has drawn such acute awareness to your own cursing habits.

Oldman’s ironic answer to youthful free spirit in Nil by Mouth is evinced through Val’s brother Billy, the transient member of Oldman’s dysfunctional family who moves from alley to alley, stairwell to stairwell, looking for his next fix. He steals medicine from Ray’s bathroom cabinet, takes money from his own mother who cannot bear to see him suffering from withdrawal, and lives his day-to-day in fits and starts.

His strange coterie of druggie friends, including the tattooed Angus (Jon Morrison) who recites Dennis Hopper’s Apocalypse Now speech in one of the film’s standout scenes, is a pitiful study of drug culture endemic to the capital. All of Billy’s ambition and hope for a better life bubbles perpetually in the bowl of a teaspoon, an escape he cannot afford to buy but cannot live without.

This film’s aesthetic, at once nihilistic and undeniably British, is derived from the grit and gloom of Alan Clarke, who in films such as Road, Elephant and Made in Britain, offered a similarly bleak look at postwar Britain, depicting a society where poverty is rife and hardworking regular folk are barely able to scrape by.

Modern day successors to Oldman’s superlative kitchen-sink drama can be found in the form of Shane Meadows’ work, as well as Paddy Considine’s own debut feature from 2011, Tyrannosaur. Considine’s harrowing depiction of domestic abuse within the confines of a housing estate harks back to Nil by Mouth with a gap-toothed, bloodied smile, highlighting the genre’s enduring appeal.

Nil by Mouth is a film that doesn’t entertain notions of catharsis, redemption, or escape. Its characters are temporally glued in place, struggling to breathe under the weight of their reality. There is no sensationalist storytelling found here, no arcs or conclusions. Oldman’s language is that of the everyday, his filmmaking is of the ordinary. What we see in Nil by Mouth, as shocking as it is to behold, is not new nor uncommon in the modern world. Violence breeds violence, and Oldman’s film shows us this horrific reproduction without compromise, hesitation or shame.

Published 21 May 2017

Tags: British cinema Gary Oldman

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