What with Roddy Doyle, Mike Leigh, Irvine Welsh and playwright Mark Ravenhill (author of this season's off-Broadway smash, "Shopping and Fucking"), the urban underclasses of the British Isles are enjoying -- if that's the word -- their biggest pop-culture resurgence since Johnny Rotten claimed to be the antichrist. If nothing else, this neo-kitchen-sink movement is a timely reminder that Tony Blair's "rebranded" Britain of cell-phone-toting entrepreneurs has yet to escape its sordid history of class division. The next auteur bellying up to the bar for a pint of lager and a packet of crisps turns out to be actor Gary Oldman, whose immense street cred stretches back at least as far as 1986's "Sid and Nancy," in which his memorable portrayal of Sid Vicious (an ill-fated colleague of the aforementioned Mr. Rotten) became a touchstone of the last gutter-authenticity revival.
Oldman's writing and directing debut with the cryptically titled "Nil by Mouth" (there's an explication toward the end of the film, but I can't say it helps much) is both an impressive and an impressively dreary affair. Its horrific South London landscape of smoky pubs, bad drugs and worse marriages is completely convincing, and as you'd expect, Oldman draws intensely focused, naturalistic performances from an outstanding cast of British TV veterans. (He himself does not appear in the film.) Under the circumstances, it seems churlish to complain. But I left the theater with the nagging sensation that, for all its admirable grit and craft, "Nil by Mouth" isn't actually about anything.
Oldman and his defenders might well point out that life very often isn't about anything either. The poor are generally miserable; some do the best they can and others don't; abuse and disorder beget abuse and disorder. These things are true and don't change much. But while that's as far as Oldman goes, for Leigh that would be no more than the frame, the beginning of the story. The difference is that Leigh, for all his eccentricity of method, is fundamentally a dramatist, a maker of dynamic universes. Oldman, at this early stage of his filmmaking career, is a portraitist, and the universe of "Nil by Mouth" is a steady state, one in which men desperately narcotize themselves toward the grave as rapidly as possible, while women look on with a mixture of pity, fear and withering contempt.
Although the portrait of working-class family despair at the heart of "Nil by Mouth" is composed of familiar elements, they have rarely been employed to more devastating effect. Unless you're paying close attention and can parse the dense Bermondsey dialect early on, it might take a while for you to grasp the names and relationships of the movie's alcoholic husband, battered wife and affectless teenager (actually not their son but her younger brother). It scarcely matters -- as the watery, underlit, documentary-style cinematography of Ron Fortunato makes clear, these characters are representatives, plucked almost at random from thousands like them in London, not to mention millions more throughout the industrialized world.
Ray, the mid-30s husband, is played by Ray Winstone as a thick-necked, terrifying, incipient volcano of a man, hungrily devouring booze and cheap cocaine while being devoured in turn by paranoid rages and fears that his pregnant wife is cheating on him, his brother-in-law has stolen his drugs (this of course is justified) and the world will see him exposed as "a fucking cunt" (ditto). His wife, Valery (the extraordinary Kathy Burke), is a lifeless, stringy-haired, hollow-eyed creature, so defeated that she lies to her own mother (Laila Morse) after Ray nearly beats her to death for her imagined indiscretions. Watching all this with a mask of total unconcern is Valery's brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), an all-but-invisible beanpole whose aimless street life of heroin, panhandling and low-rent crime seems positively bucolic by comparison.
Events do occur, after a fashion, but Oldman's point seems to be that nothing ever begins or ends. Ray and his Mick Jagger look-alike best pal Mark (Jamie Forman) go out boozing and whoring. Ray assaults some guy outside the Wimpy Burger; we never find out why. Ray assaults Billy; Billy goes missing for days and ends up in jail on some charge or other. Ray assaults Valery; the women join forces (temporarily) to exile him from the family (temporarily). The random, almost inconsequential tragedy of this nonstory is perfectly plausible, if painful to sit through. Ultimately, however, when this overlong movie begins to run out of steam, Oldman begins to grasp for meaning and can do no better than formulaic victim-speak epiphany.
We've twice seen Ray become a blubbering, incoherent idiot when drunk, yet at the film's intended climax he is suddenly capable of a lengthy monologue about how his father denied him love. The scene has the embarrassing aroma of the undergraduate writing seminar, and not even Winstone, with the appalling accuracy of his performance, can redeem it.
Nonetheless, even in Oldman's most egregious of mistakes, the passion he feels for these desperate people and their desperate lives is tangible. "Nil by Mouth" is dedicated to the director's father, and I almost don't want to know how much of their relationship can be found in it. As I said earlier, this film is a portrait, and it's a mesmerizing, unforgettable one. The story of how a boy like Gary Oldman comes out of this world and becomes something different -- that's a drama, but perhaps its end has yet to be written.