Few who watch Gary Oldman’s impressive directorial debut Nil by Mouth are likely to forget it. The tough, relentless domestic drama came as an electric shock in a period when British film, in particular when telling stories about London, was more often than not safe, suburban and cosy. Nil by Mouth was a refreshingly vivid award-winner on many levels, but the true heart of the film was undoubtedly in its array of astonishing performances, in particular Kathy Burke’s. Like the film as a whole, her firehouse performance lingers long after the credits have rolled.
Oldman’s film follows the misfortunes of a deprived family in working-class South London. The family is ruled over by the patriarch Ray (Ray Winston), whose drink-fuelled rage boils over at regular intervals. His partner Valerie (Burke) often bears the brunt of his anger and, after one argument caused by Ray’s jealousy over Valerie playing snooker with a man in their local pub, he brutally attacks her causing a miscarriage of her baby. The drama revolves around the interactions of the family, including Valerie’s mother (Laila Morse, Oldman’s real-life sister) and her drug addict brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles).
Burke had been on the big screen since the early 1980s, her debut being the underrated Mai Zetterling prison drama from 1982, Scrubbers. She had equally been a regular on television for some years by the time of filming Nil by Mouth, yet something about the role of Valerie allowed her to explore the full emotional scope that previous roles hadn’t quite matched.
In a film of standout performances, Burke has some competition, but is still the most memorable screen presence. The development of her role arguably provides the most subtle possibilities. Her trajectory from quiet but essentially happy pregnant women to someone who has hope literally beaten out of her is pessimistic to the extreme. Yet, within the performance is a slight glimmer of a future; of a character that, like so many in real life, continues on in spite of things.
The environment of the film is brutally masculine. The women of the film deal with loud and violent men as they variously encounter each other. Whereas the men in the film tend to flee in fear of violence, either to avoid receiving it or in sheer shock at having committed it, the women are forced to confront it head-on.
When explaining to her mother about the horrific injuries covering her face and body, Burke’s performance attains a disturbing believability. She lies about the nature of her injuries, spinning a story about a hit-and-run driver on the estate. In a melodrama, such a scene could have been played with all guns blazing, a faux drama within the narrative demanding to be told with some panache.
But there’s quietude to it, a heartbreaking rhythm of calm patter that suggests habitual practice; that this may not be the first time she’s had to invent stories to excuse the odd bruise or cut. Her sense of dejection in the film is rendered with skill but is never indulgently hopeless.
In fact, Burke’s strongest moments come in things as simple as a look, a walk or a single line rather than overarching monologues. After she has been attacked by Ray and she’s safely at her mother’s, she gets up from the couch to hobble upstairs before she collapses. Her body reflects the environment of the film’s setting, cracking under the years of strain.
The Ferrier Estate itself, used for much of the filming, was ironically not many years away from being demolished. Again, the scenario could have called for something to ease the horror, as soap operas dealing with similar themes are often forced to, but instead Burke is simply dejected and tired rather than milking the dramatic potential of the scenario, barely getting up the first few steps before her body quietly gives way.
Of course, by the film’s conclusion, Valerie is stronger. “You do hurt people,” she says confidently to Ray’s face, followed by “You ain’t fuckin’ taking the piss out of me anymore.” She is somehow more defiant in spite of what she has been through. The final scene even has most of the family sitting quite happily in the flat that Ray has since re-built after he smashed it up, just as the relationship with Valerie has been seemingly patched back together. Valerie’s closing of the flat door also closes the film, her story ending when she decides.
In many regards, the momentum of the film is down to the sparring drama between Burke and Winston. Their chemistry makes the film fizz until it shockingly breaks down into unbearable domestic horror. While both performers’ working-class backgrounds arguably brought some authenticity to the dialogue in particular, it was a strange hook that critics got hold of at the time, much to the annoyance of the leads. “Just because we tend to appear in things with our own accents,” Burke told the Guardian in 2002, “people think we’re just being ourselves.
When Nil by Mouth was released, people thought that’s what we were actually like, that they’d put me and Ray in front of the cameras and filmed what came out. No acting involved. Of course, when bloody Robert De Niro or Al Pacino does it, everyone’s going, ‘Ain’t they fucking wonderful?’, but when it’s one of their own they don’t think it’s any good.” It was exactly the sort of condescension that made Nil by Mouth an important film to make in first place.
This sense of outsider-ship is backed further by the fact that Burke was nominated but didn’t win the BAFTA for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. She lost out to Dame Judi Dench in John Madden’s accomplished but typically quaint period film Mrs. Brown. Winston, too, lost out, though the film cleared up nicely in other categories. For Burke especially, however, it does feel a shame, not just because it was obviously the best performance of that year, but because it may be one of the most accomplished and important screen roles of 1990s British cinema.
Published 27 Oct 2022
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