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Nil by Mouth review – Gary Oldman’s gritty drama is like Ken Loach on coke

The great actor's sole directorial credit, re-released for its 25th anniversary, offers a bleak, uncompromising vision of 90s Britain

Gary Oldman moved behind the camera only once, for this stark, harrowing and underseen slice of what you might call ashtray cinema, now on-release courtesy of the BFI to mark its 25th anniversary. Nil by Mouth is about as grim as the kitchen-sink drama comes and almost feels like a corrective to Danny Boyle's more palatable look at drug addiction in Trainspotting, released one year before. But free from that film's gritty glamorisation, characters here are afforded little chance at redemption: the film is etched with ominous overtones that suggest salvation is impossible and cycles of violence are never-ending and absolute. It's the film equivalent of falling over, pissed, and cracking your head on the pavement.

Oldman's vision of working-class London, taking in autobiographical elements of his own childhood growing up south of the river, finds its story in the sweary wasters and wanders of a council estate, with Ray Winstone's dominating Ray at the centre – a bulldozing black hole pulling everyone into his despair. Winstone embodies the role of a drug addict and alcoholic abuser with no pretence of acting; angry, scarred by his own childhood, and surrounded by grinning croonies, Ray comes to blows at first with his brother-in-law and heroine addict Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles, quietly remarkable), and later with his gentle, put-upon wife Val (Kathy Burke), who is subjected to an act of horrific violence in the film's brutal centre scene.

What comes across most now is the depth and observation in Oldman's writing, which is so naturalistic you wonder whether there was even a script, delivered by way of impeccable performances from the entire cast, the kind where we're made to feel like we're looking in on real lives and overheard conversations. Oldman's real life sister Laila Morse is extraordinary as Val's mother, as is Jamie Foreman as Ray's friend Mark, both of whom would end up better known for their work on EastEnders. But it's Burke, who won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her performance here, who proves the film's MVP, drawing on our empathy without ever asking for it.

The film's narrative is as loose as life, capturing a storm of violence that carries through a series of isolated incidents – visits to Soho strip joints, to the pub, to the streets where drugs are sniffed and scored. If the ending rings strangely, at first appearing like a false note, it lingers differently later: the “happy ending” is a mere respite from the violence, not an end, and Val has once more found herself back where she vowed never to go again. The film offers no real justification that Ray has really changed, suggested in the subtlest of side glances during the climatic kitchen scene.

Oldman captures a time and place without resorting to anything showy, almost in a vérité style. It's proof of his instinctive talents as a filmmaker, but also a signal of trust in his actors. It's a film that leaves you wondering why he never returned to the director's chair – though maybe as a creative exercise Nil by Mouth proved cathartic enough for four or five films. As a debut, its initial receptive was luke-warm, but it now plays as a minor classic, like Ken Loach on coke. But schedule something wholesome afterwards – the downward drag of the material is painfully real.

Nil by Mouth is re-released in UK cinemas on 4 November.

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