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Weekly Alibi London Brawling

By Devin D. O'Leary

MARCH 30, 1998:  Europe's premiere overactor, Gary Oldman, has decided to take the next step and try his hand at writing and directing. He's gone to Frenchy pal Luc Besson (whom he worked for in The Fifth Element and The Professional) to help produce Nil By Mouth, a low-budget, semi-autobiographical drama about life in working-class South London. The raw-boned result galvanized critics at last year's Cannes film fest. In America, the reception has been less energetic. The film's press kit describes it as "a realistic look at modern day England rarely depicted in motion pictures." No small wonder, since Nil By Mouth feels less like a dramatic motion picture and more like a method acting workshop gone horribly awry.

As a director, Oldman conducts his actors in the same loose, improvisational style as early Scorsese--which means that this film is probably as easily digestible to the average American as Mean Streets is to the typical bloke in Blackpool. This ain't no Full Monty here, folks. Oldman's story generally concerns working-class patriarch Raymond--best described by his family as "an 'orrible bastard." Raymond shovels blow up his nose hole, drinks more than Roger Ebert on a summer day and frequently brutalizes anyone and everything in his path. And the rest of the family ain't doing so great either. Raymond's brother-in-law, Billy, shoots heroin and steals money from his poor mum. Raymond's wife spends most of her time at the local bar and sincerely hopes that the second child she's carrying will "fix" things in their marriage. Reality is an admirable result in filmmaking, but this one's a bit too naturalistic. This is cinema entirely stripped of symbolism and metaphor--call it cinema vérité taken to its uncomfortable extreme. It's like Trainspotting without the lust for life (as Iggy Pop said) or Leaving Las Vegas without the ironic weight.

Oldman is trying to make an ensemble piece, but spends his time hopping unevenly between characters. At first, Nil By Mouth concentrates on Billy, whose club-hopping, drug-sucking story reads like an old British punk movie (the dull parts of Rude Boy perhaps, or the drugged-out parts of Sid and Nancy). After a while, Oldman focuses his camera on Raymond. Ray Winstone (sort of a British horror movie version of John Goodman) is frighteningly realistic as the abusive boozer. Oldman claims this film is "semi-autobiographical," and his portrait of Raymond would tend to lend credence to the claim. Raymond could easily have been an evil cinematic ogre--instead, he's a pitiable creep (so how was your relationship with dear old dad, Gary?). About an hour into Nil By Mouth, Oldman turns up the domestic violence, and things go from bad to ugly. When the home fires start churning, Oldman finally decides this movie is about Valerie, Raymond's abused wife--and he pushes aside both Billy and Raymond to tell her tale. Kathy Burke won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her portrait of the physically and emotionally bruised housefrau. I find the lauding a bit odd, since her character doesn't even emerge from her quiet domestic shell until the film's final reel. Better still is Laila Morse as Janet--Billy and Valerie's mother. Though she's never acted before, Morse doles out an iron-clad perf. In the midst of all this numbing domestic horror, there's a grueling pathos to watching Janet drive her ailing son to score some smack or stare down her monstrous son-in-law. Morse's character is the true moral strength of this whole piece. Too bad Oldman couldn't see that.

Being an actor!, Oldman gives his cast plenty of long monologues to mouth, and there is an interesting dynamic to watching these people spout off endless randy jokes when their own life situations are so brutally humorless. The thick cockney slang and over layered dialogue will make it mighty hard for most non-Brits to decipher, though. Behind the camera, Oldman relies on tight, hand-held close-ups--a faux documentary style reminiscent of early John Cassavetes or early "NYPD Blue." But at two hours and 10 minutes, Nil By Mouth takes its bloody time getting to where it's going. A professional editor is the one thing most sorely needed here.

Still, there's an unflinching honesty and a brusque reality to this scabrous tale of addiction, violence and co-dependency. I guess I'd rather watch it than live it--but I'm still not convinced I really wanna watch it either.


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