The well worn cliche of an actor becoming a director is as old as the hills, usually it's so they can star in a vanity project with little oversight. But in the UK it's a little different, as our actors often decide instead to tell deeply personal stories, often about the difficulties facing the working class.
Celebrating its twenty fifth anniversary Gary Oldman's directorial debut and to date his only work as a director Nil by Mouth has been remastered. The film, loosely inspired by his own upbringing, tells the story of Val (Kathy Burke), who is subjected to horrific abuse by her husband Ray (Ray Winstone).
Oldman famously said he used the money he earned from action thriller Air Force One to fund production on this indie brit-flick, produced by his friend and twice collaborator Luc Besson. The film is stark, drawing on kitchen sink dramas that Britain made famous and the style coined by Alan Clark. It's a film of near unrelenting grimness, showing the horrific existence of an abused woman and those around her are complicit only in their own fear.
Oldman's screenplay used the expletive C word so many times and still holds the record for it, and doesn't fear long takes. In fact, he subjects us to witnessing the abuse of Val by Ray in brutal shots that don't cut away. The choice is clear — this is a real situation that isn't going anywhere and the film is all the stronger for it.
Burke has never been better plumbing the depths of her soul to bring Val to life as a vibrant woman being constantly emotionally and physically beaten down by someone. Despite being known for her comedy work with Harry Enfield (still some of the funniest character work to come out of the UK), this remains her finest work. Val isn't just a subject of pity, she's someone we know, she's your mum, or your friend's mum, or your colleague. Oldman has such a clear affection for the character, and for Burke, that her winning the Best Actress prize as Cannes should be no surprise.
Ray Winstone, known for his roles as heavy enforcers shows different shades here, it's not just that he's an abusive husband able to appear physically massive when his anger explodes, but we get a sense of why someone like Val might have first been attracted to him and why others do enjoy him company when he's not losing his temper and lashing out. Couple that with supporting turns from Charlie Creed-Miles, Laila Morse (Big Mo off EastEnders and Oldman's actual sister) and Jamie Forman, and the film feels lived in, it feels like a documentary.
Years after it's release it still feels as painful as when it was released, and it's legacy can be seen in Tim Roth's directorial debut The War Zone and Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur, both of which owe a debt of gratitude to this film that once seen is never forgotten.
Nil By Mouth screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.