Last night, on DVD via Netflix: Gary Oldman’s “Nil By Mouth” (1997).
The movie exquisitely depicts a lower-class South London family’s perpetual struggle with alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic abuse and…um…well that’s about it: alcoholism, drug addiction and domestic abuse. It reminds one of “Trainspotting” but is not nearly as funny, though it would make a fine double feature with its cousin from the north. Just show “Trainspotting” second, so that the audience will be able to leave the theater with a spring in their step and a song in their hearts rather than in body bags, killed by self-inflicted soda straw wounds or asphyxiation via deliberate popcorn overdose.
Now I personally enjoy “depressing movies”–that’s what my mum calls them–films like “Nil By Mouth” whose purpose is to show the degraded human condition. If executed correctly–and “Nil By Mouth” is–these films result in my leaving the theater with a heart full of compassion for us all. I understand that this sub-genre–which reminds us of the suffering of others, rather than our own beloved suffering–is not appealing to everyone. In fact, I was privy to a long argument this weekend about the merits of Todd Solondz’s comedy “Happiness” on this very point. One combatant held that “Happiness” was a vicious exercise in exploitation and misanthropy, the other said that it showed authentically and admirably the reality of domestic nightmares that we all try to ignore. I tend toward the latter view of that particular film and I appreciate the same effect in others in this subgenre–”Requiem for a Dream”, “The Sweet Hereafter”, “The Ice Storm”, “Five Easy Pieces”, even the BBC comedy “The Office”. These are stories which break your heart, but–to paraphrase Hubert Selby Jr.–break it OPEN.
I had seen a portion of “Nil By Mouth” a few years ago on TV–on the Independent Film Channel?–and was mesmerized by the authenticity of its characters, particularly its tough women whose great virtue–and tragic flaw–is an unending ability to endure. Even that glimpse of Kathy Burke’s performance, as Valerie, stuck with me. I have, from that time to this, wanted to see the movie in its entirety primarily to see her whole performance. Burke won the Best Actress Award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for the role and was nominated for a 1998 BAFTA Award (losing to RSC juggernaut Judy Dench for her performance in “Mrs. Brown”). “Nil By Mouth” won the BAFTA Alexander Korda Award for the Outstanding British Film of the Year.
It’s easy to find many average director-actors (applauded and awarded) who manage to direct other actors to average performances (also applauded and awarded). Gary Oldman was in the 1990′s a very fine actor with much training and stage experience and “Nil By Mouth” shows how much can come of such understanding and expertise. Conversely, it illuminates just how underused and misunderstood actors are in 95% of movies made. Watching “Nil By Mouth” I am reminded, “Oh, that’s what movie acting is supposed to look like. I’d almost forgotten.” I haven’t seen “A Bronx Tale” Robert De Niro’s directorial debut or Anthony Hopkins’s “August” and I am curious and cautious about them both, but there are many examples of superior actors directing actors to superior performances in superior movies–many of them British actors. British actors are–we hear ad nauseum–highly trained in technique. Technique is that thing that allows you to do well even when you don’t feel like it, and I’m sure this technical knowledge gives them an extra edge in being able to construct the appropriate conditions for eliciting optimum performances. This is perhaps why “Nil By Mouth” features great performances, and “A Beautiful Mind” features good performances.
It’s not difficult to make a pretty woman look pretty on the screen. It is a fine feat of actor-director collaboration when in “Nil By Mouth” leaden-faced Kathy Burke forgets the struggle of the moment and her sudden smile seems to light up the whole world. Her smile, set artfully in the midst of a world of concrete and fists and needles and terror, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in the movies in a long time.
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