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The Life I’ve Got: Favourite British Bleak Films

Nil By Mouth

Raymond gestures aggressively at someone unseen
Raymond (Ray Winstone) making his point in the only way he can – aggressively

I’m 30 today, you know, and I feel so f*****g old. You know, I’m so tired. And I wanna be able to look back and say, “l had a bit of fun” when I’m old. Instead of saying, “Everyone f*****g felt sorry for me”. I mean, that’s the life I’ve got.

Kathy Burke as Valerie.

Nil by Mouth is, to date, the only feature film directed by legendary actor Gary Oldman, who also wrote the screenplay based on the environment he grew up around on a South London council estate. It is also an absolutely crushing film that details how parental detachment will breed the same detachment in their children as they start their own families.

The film follows the relationship of Raymond (Ray Winstone) and Valerie (Kathy Burke) as they share their shoe box flat in a tower block with their five-year-old daughter, and Valerie’s mother, grandmother and younger brother, Billy. Such cramped lodgings for such a large family is enough to ignite any sparks of tension anyway, but Raymond has a nasty temper and, although the word is never used, is essentially an alcoholic, starting early and ending in the early hours (it’s not all sociable either: a brief scene showing Raymond in an empty pub, sunlight blasting brightly through the windows, an empty shot glass and a full pint next to him, suggests it’s literally opening time).

The film avoids flashy or over-stylistic cinematography, keeping lighting as natural as possible and editing to a minimum so as to avoid the filmic conventions interrupting the realism of what the film is trying to portray. Visually, the film has a washed out feel, with the muted greys of the tower blocks and their corridors covered in a sickly green fluorescent light that immediately withers the soul to look at. Even the neon lights of the city look muted, underpowered. Inspiring, such an environment is not.

At heart, Nil by Mouth focuses on self-perpetuation of toxic masculinity that can arise in such environments. Raymond is a career criminal and trades prison stories with his friends, also veterans of cells, like they’re tales of wild nights out rather than incarceration, full of large than life characters up to no good, even in prison. The whole thing is normalised, just an everyday part of life, even if it’s less than desirable.

As for when the lads do hit the town, it’s seedy and low-rent. It’s not even the run of the mill entertainment of pub and club. It’s an amusement arcade, the lads getting aggressively competitive as they take part on the horse racing game, and a strip club with no pretence of glamour, just leering men, beer and women who do not object when the men grope them. It is anything other than sexy. In the toilets of the strip club, Raymond snorts a line then assesses his expanding waistline in the mirror. He seems satisfied, but there’s a moment’s doubt and it’s in that pregnant pause that all the insecurities and vulnerabilities, which these men push down into themselves lest they be perceived as weak, will rear their ugly heads. For men will do their best to remain boys where they can. But you’re not nineteen forever, Raymond…

The film is most unflinching in its portrayal of violence, whether self-harm or violence done to others. Billy, Valerie’s young brother, is a heroin addict. At heart, he seems like a nice lad, a bit soft even, looking up to Raymond and his cronies as they lay out their sordid exploits, or giving his mum some money when he’s a bit flush. But addiction makes people ugly, whether they’re nice or not. We see graphic shots of Billy cooking up and tying off and we also see him inject. It’s not glamorous and it is not portrayed as such. The fact that he has to hide down in the back of his mum’s car and desperately inject when he’s been without for a period, whilst his mum watches on with concern for and also fear of her son, is heart-breaking. As is the scene when Billy gets some money from his mum in the morning, buys some drugs, gets the tube all the way down to where his mum works in a warehouse. He wants more money already for his habit, to which his mum quite reasonably asks where the money from this morning has gone. But she already knows the answer: he hasn’t got any money and neither has she because she seems to be working to feed a £60 a day habit. The ensuing argument is genuinely awful: the mother with a genuine love for her son and her frustration and bewilderment at how to help him, the son driven beyond reason by his addiction and furious at anything that will stop him getting that hit he needs to keep going. It feels raw and real and hopeless, because neither party seems able to solve the problem. They are unable to communicate with the other.

Raymond, on the other hand, can communicate, but only with his temper and his fists. The inarticulacy of a certain male expression that finds its release in aggression, it snuffs out hope, quashes love under its bruised knuckles. As it does when a paranoid Raymond interrogates Valerie in violent fashion regarding another man she’d been playing pool with in the pub. Ray Winstone is frighteningly intense as he screams and threatens until he can no longer restrain himself and the inevitable happens. The film does not flinch from recording the beating that follows, implicating us as much as Raymond: ‘this is happening—why aren’t we doing anything about it?’ The beating itself is terrifying, looking scarily realistic, which only adds to the bleakness. It gets worse. How? Valerie was pregnant at the time, and miscarries due to the assault.

The title Nil by Mouth is explained by Raymond in a rare moment of vulnerability. Talking to his best mate, Raymond explains that his dad was a notorious boozer who spent all of his time in the pub and ignored his family. When his dad was in hospital later, Raymond asked his mother what the sign ‘nil by mouth’ meant. “I could have put that on his f*****g tombstone, y’know? ‘Cause I don’t remember one kiss, one cuddle, nothing…he wasn’t like other kids’ dads. It was as if the word itself was enough. And it ain’t.”

It’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t use this understandably traumatic relationship with his dad as a cop-out to explain away or justify his appalling behaviour, rather it makes the point that unless you have a bit of self-awareness and take responsibility for your own actions, what comes around can come around once more.

Chris Flackett

Written by Chris Flackett

Chris Flackett is a writer for 25YL who loves Twin Peaks, David Lynch, great absurdist literature and listens to music like he's breathing oxygen. He lives in Manchester, England with his beautiful wife, three kids and the ghosts of Manchester music history all around him.

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