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Wednesday, June 10, 1998

Nil by Mouth

Posted By on Wed, Jun 10, 1998 at 12:00 AM

Ever wonder how actor Gary Oldman can play weirdos and madmen with such conviction? Well, here's your answer, all laid out in lurid detail.

Working from memories of his childhood in South London, Oldman delivers a semiautobiographical portrait of a family on the perpetual skids. There's Ray (Ray Winstone), a tough-talking, hard-drinking creeper who dabbles in fencing and drug-peddling. Back at his council flat, live-in lady Val (Kathy Burke), shambles about with teacup and cigarette in hand, waiting for yet another kiddie to pop out of her belly. Not yet 30, she looks 40 and thinks as if she's 60. Her mother and grandmother stop by occasionally to meddle and grouse.

Things turn for the worse when Val's little brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) nicks some of Ray's stash to pay for his scag. A huge domestic row ensues, climaxing with a brutal assault on the hapless Val. Dysfunction, however, conquers all and, by the end, Ray and his mob are back in the pub swigging their merry way into oblivion.

So why sit through yet another two-hour exposé on the desperate living of ill-tempered deadbeats? For one thing, Oldman displays an admirable lack of ego in his direction. This is an old-school, kitchen sink drama delivered in a straight cinema-verité style; no frills, no grandstanding. The power of the film comes from the script and from the acting. Unlike Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, whose vignettes of working-class life tend to seem hollow and stilted, Oldman just points and shoots. The dialogue is fantastic and the cast, almost all veterans of the BBC, could do their roles in their sleep. But don't.

Winstone is the one to watch. His Ray is a small child with a glimmer of intelligence doomed to a brute's body and appetites. Even a potentially maudlin moment of cherchez le père comes off beautifully as Ray recounts seeing his old man lying in a hospital bed with a sign "Nil by Mouth" over his head. No food goes down, but all the bile spews up.

Nothing is new here, but the message bears repeating: There's no romance in poverty -- even for the poor.

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