There's not really a plot here. What we're looking at is a family in council housing - a poor, distraught family, torn apart by the people. Kathy Burke is Valerie, the long suffering wife of Ray (Ray Winstone). Ray is a drunken abusive man, haunted by his demons. He fights regularly with Valerie's heroin addicted brother, who cannot escape his own life style. Over this watches Valerie's mother, Janet, in a resigned fashion, lost to any real hope of something different. We get to spend some time with these characters, seeing how their lives develop. Unlike traditional movie structures we're not really building to a giant convergence of plot lines, a climatic final scene. Real life is not like that - it's a series of events, marked by occasions. This is the view the movie takes and it works well because it makes it far more credible than a final showdown involving a gun and a murder. What's even more interesting is that while Ray is `bad' he could not be quite considered evil - there's a darkness in him that he's fighting against. There's a great scene involving a telephone which brilliantly highlights how torn apart these characters are and how nothing is ever quite as simple as you would like to believe.
The acting is astonishing. I can't praise either Burke or Winstone enough. One of the reasons this movie is so unnerving is that the characters are believable - and this is due to the actors behind them. When Winstone's face becomes animated with range it really seems like he is ferocious, full of venom. You would race across the other side of the street from him, seeing the fury inside this man. Burke herself could have just played the demure wife but she adds far more complexity. Yes she is suffering, but there's a great hint of steel beneath her - shown in the delivery of a dialog, or the turn on a face. By not distracting us with pretty faces, director Gary Oldham manages to deliver actual characters. The energy - unflinching - delivered by them makes them seem horribly like people you know can exist within miles of your home.
Oldham himself shows a good directorial view. The movie uses a lot of hand-cameras (and presumably some unusual film stock) to get a grittier realism. This is aided by some excellent cinematography - the lighting is bleak, subdued, in keeping with the movie. Even the sunshine is pale, as if there's never really any hope to be had. The sound design is crisp, and generally minimalist - instead letting the camera and acting tell the story rather than forced manipulation via a composed piece. The set design also deserves a nod - the house around which a lot of the movie resolves has a real `lived in' feel. Too often Hollywood directors décor their house in a few luxury sofas and leave it at that. Here there's a real sense of a home with condiments and grit engrained in the walls. It all adds up the power. Ultimately though it is Oldham's unflinching depiction of the events that stands in the movies favour - the camera is close, it's there, you cannot escape through some banal metaphor (which is typical of most movies).
`Nil By Mouth' is more of an `experience' movie. It's a wrenching, arresting viewing that is sometimes very difficult to watch because you know there's a horrible shade of truth to it. It's not necessarily something you'd watch repeatedly (unless you've a shade of masochism to you), but it is something that will leave a little indelible mark on you as something to muse on. Definitely worth seeing - but be prepared. 8.1/10.