Nil by Mouth (1997) BFI Blu Ray – 2 Disc set


“Nil by Mouth” is a medical term meaning no food or water is to be given to a patient through their mouth.  The expression’s used by Ray (Ray Winstone) when he speaks to his friend Mark (Jamie Forman) about his father (long deceased) and his time in hospital with cancer.  Ray angrily says he received no love from his dad – unable to give love and cuddles.  Earlier on in the film he asks his wife’s grandmother Kath for a hug and doesn’t receive one.  The absence of physical tenderness is one of many things that have created a loveless family made more acutely dysfunctional by their petty criminality.

The father tale is told after Ray has horribly beaten up his wife Val (Kathy Burke) and smashed up their flat.  I have a problem with that absent father ‘explanation’ scene for it comes across as a bit too much emotional over-kill to sit alongside of the irony / ambiguity (?) of the film’s final scene of a family reuniting and deciding to visit Val’s brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) in prison for robbing a man to support his drug habit (Sorry to have given you a plot-spoiler but there’s not much plot anyway.)

I think the expression “Nil by Mouth” works well as a metaphor.  But it would have worked better placed, venting fury at Ray’s father, within the film’s constant stream of abusive dialogue (Nil by Mouth has characters narrating booze-filled, substance-high and exaggerated machismo stories, functioning as a kind of defensive parenthesis to deflect from the reality of their own naked grim story of family discord.) I do realise that such a messed up family as this cannot easily escape its generational passing on of a loveless, or love-crushed, response to its children.  But is Nil by Mouth’s ending right?

For me the real ending should have been the club scene just before the get-together over Billy.  Here Kath walks onto the stage to sing Jerome Kern’s Can’t help lovin’ that man of mine.  The bitter irony of this for Ray, not present in the scene, as a violent and controlling patriarch, comes powerfully through aided by telling close-ups of Val.  But we have the Gary Oldman film edit that we have, which is for the most part a brilliant achievement: a relentless and visceral depiction of a specific South London working class family.

You very quickly lose count of the number of times that the f and c word are used. Hundreds with a rapidity to exhaust their shock value and become a running musical commentary – Nil by Mouth’s title implying that the foul mouth results in an impoverishment of language – it’s all nothing (NIL) and of no consequence.  Very tempting to view much of this film as a NI-hilistic hell of raw emotion: though I can take f and c much more than the adoption of the American “like” – would 500 constant bombardments of that empty a cinema more than swearing?

What can certainly be annoying is using a handheld camera badly.  Not so here.  Oldman (as first-time director) employs it with a precision and mastery that’s impressive.  You never want the film to be technically other for its perfectly married to Nil by Mouth’s animal energy.  Take the scene where Billy searches his sister’s flat looking for money to buy drugs.  It’s edgy and feverish with the camera following him like a nervous accomplice; works beautifully in the club scenes and the drunken storytelling on the sofa moments.  We feel imprisoned in this raging sweaty world of macho control and feminine resistance.

All the performances are amazing.  It was Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke’s finest hour, with all the supports giving a similar one hundred percent conviction.  Some films are merely acted.  This one is intensely lived.  Nil by Mouth makes up for so many old British films that patronised working class characters.  It might be dark, raw and depressing but not without humour.  The angry tone of Nil by Mouth set a new benchmark for social realism in the British cinema of the 1990s.

So, even if I think the film does stumble momentarily in the last third, Nil by Mouth’s hard authenticity gives it an conviction to be placed alongside other charged, though very different, expressions of ordinary people’s lives like Bronco Bullfrog, It Never Rains on Sunday, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Some People, Naked and Distant Voices, Still Lives.  I may not return to Nil By Mouth as often as those films but it’s as equally important in allowing other voices, usually unheard, or muffled by soap opera dialogue, to roar, play, sing and swear uninhibitedly on.

Alan Price © 2022.