Twenty-five years ago, Gary Oldman opened an artery of anguish with his brilliant, wrenchingly emotional debut as writer-director inspired by his own father and his childhood in south London, positioned between Terence Davies and Martin Scorsese. The title conveys with horrible force both violence and the cost of violence. “Nil by mouth” is what you see over an intravenously fed patient’s hospital bed – and yet the phrase is also a metaphor for the dad’s dysfunction, the walled-off emotional aridity; nil by mouth, no kissing, no talking, nothing.
It is an urban pastoral and social-realist tragedy. Watched again now, you can appreciate how formally accomplished it is, how emotionally extravagant, and acted at full tilt by a remarkable cast. Ray Winstone is Ray, the angry and self-hating drinker and coke addict running a shadowy line in drug distribution with his dodgy mate Mark – an excellent, garrulous performance from Jamie Foreman. Ray has employed his unreliable young brother-in-law Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) who has evidently tasted the supply and got pathetically hooked on smack. Kathy Burke won Best Actress at Cannes for her moving performance as Ray’s abused wife Val. Oldman cast his sister Laila Morse (in her acting debut) as Val’s mother Janet, and Edna Doré is tremendous as Val’s grandmother Kath; she has a heart-wrenching final song, Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine (the vocal, in fact, comes from Oldman’s own mum, Kathleen). The young Neil Maskell has a cameo as a guy who gets into a fight with Billy at the local launderette, and Eric Clapton composed the original music.
Angry, frazzled Ray is the film’s core. He is unbelievably violent: both Burke and Creed-Miles spend long stretches of the film with facial wounds which gradually heal, scene by scene, the result of his savage beatings. And the climax of horror comes when Ray becomes obsessed with the idea that blameless Val is having an affair with another man.
To watch Nil By Mouth is to be plunged into a semi-vanished London of smoking in pubs, payphones and Soho clip joints. Compared with most of the later geezer-crime movies of 90s Cool Britannia, as well as many subsequent British social-realist pictures, Nil By Mouth is superior (and addictively watchable) because of its pure invention, energy and seriousness – especially in the set-piece speeches and amazing verbal riffing from Winstone and Foreman, which inadvertently reveal the vulnerability and pain behind the machismo. Mark makes Ray cry laughing with his anecdote about how he almost had a heart attack by over-indulging in pills which were for “depression”, and Burke has a fascinatingly, atypically theatrical and involved speech at the film’s very end, almost like a Shakespearean epilogue, when she explains to the rest of the apparently reunited family how the now-imprisoned Billy has been moved to a secure wing due to a stabbing incident. It is Billy’s misery that has somehow miraculously redeemed their collective pain – temporarily, at any rate.
Oldman hasn’t directed a film since, although he currently has one in development, and perhaps it isn’t too surprising; he gave so much blood and sweat to this tremendous debut. Burke has rightly become a national treasure, loved and respected, although I have to say I am still waiting for someone to give her another major movie role worthy of her talent.
• Nil By Mouth is released on 4 November in cinemas.