Nil By Mouth, 1997


Nil by Mouth takes its name from a booze sodden memory in Gary Oldman’s 1997 drama. Raymond (Ray Winstone) describes the signage besides the gurney of his terminally ill father. Before surgery, Raymond senior (a terminal alcoholic) was not allowed the passage of food through his mouth. Raymond recalls the image in a moment of clarity, after he has destroyed his own life from alcohol. Nil by Mouth is about the moments in an alcoholic’s life that aren’t the ecstatic, stumbling madnesses, but the clinical, and the agonising loss of function. The long waiting between moments of drunken bliss, the boredom, and the body’s abject failure. Bodies in poverty that act at the whims of need; as if nothing else mattered, indeed in the acknowledgement that sometimes – nothing else matters at all.

Nil by Mouth is ostensibly a stripped down South London story of two wideboys, that feature first and last, but also of their families whom have compelling stories of their own. Gary Oldman directs, and writes, and its clear that he has made some effort to de-centre character so that although the two men are the physically dominant figures, Raymond’s wife Valerie (played subtly by Kathy Burke), and a younger heroin addicted Billy (Creed-Miles) have their own tales. Valerie strives for safety from her husband, as her pregnant body needs to be protected, while Billy grifts for money and heroin. But in each of these stories the passage of narrative is interrupted by the fists of Raymond that police the others with a terrifying, sobering, and unspeakably life-like violence.

Early in the film Raymond and his friend Mark (played as utterly unlikeable, by Jamie Foreman) act out a burglary somewhere off camera, and then play out a hackneyed crime narrative. Visiting Soho brothels and strip clubs with their earnings in order to realise the fantasy with the most immediate vigour; taking huge lines of cocaine to emphasize their wealth they become momentary high-rollers; proper, British, gangsters. But the high does not remain, the returning loss of function results in an episode of marital jealousy that sees a psychotic Raymond beating Valerie hard enough that she miscarries. Raymond’s subsequent breakdown sequence and the logorrhea of his drunken babble is an exceptional moment, as deep memory and mechanisms of repression all collapse together like the thought patterns of the senile. 

Nil by Mouth takes the everyday stories that go under-examined, under-empathised and creates a kind of cinema that isn’t quite cinematic. It doesn’t flow or weave together as plot, instead it tangles like a set of vignettes, closer to a TV soap or Play. Like the apocrypha that says the blind develop greater powers of hearing, what this film lacks visually produces a stronger sense of character and plot. A delicately made, and challenging film about a very transpontine strife.