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Look Back in Anger

British actor Gary Oldman, who made his mark playing a punk in 1986's Sid and Nancy and a playwright in 1987's Prick Up Your Ears, wrote and directed Nil By Mouth, which has already drawn comparisons to the class-conscious dramas of Mike Leigh (1993's Naked, 1996's Secrets & Lies). The film, which Oldman dedicates to his father, is a look back at his days growing up in working-class South London.

The film begins with a promising scene in a loud pub: Foul-mouthed but at times hilarious lager louts entertain each other with outrageous stories and boasts while the camera crosscuts to monologues by truly terrible standup comedians. One look at the haircuts tells us that we're close to Leigh's dispirited, unfashionable Britain. Nil By Mouth's lo-fi aesthetic duplicates, with hand-held cameras, the material sparsity of its setting, from beginning to end, moving in jumpy fits and starts, as if this were a poorly funded documentary about blue-collar life.

In the pub we meet the three friends at the center of the film: witty Mark (Jamie Forman); young, lank Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles); and most important, Raymond (Ray Winstone), whose stubbornness and heft bring to mind a hard-drinking cockney bull. And though it takes a few more scenes, we gradually get a sense of the women: Billy's vivacious mother Janet (newcomer Laila Morse); her wrinkled, laconic mother Kath (Edna Dore); and the haggard Valerie, Ray's long-suffering wife, a role that won Kathy Burke the Best Actress award at Cannes last year.

We understand, too, that this is not the London of high collars and fluted street lamps but rather the one of garish corner shops, high-rise housing projects, neon-lit strip joints, and seedy "laundrettes" on busy streets. That is, an incompletely Americanized place in which neither socialism nor capitalism seems to work.

After this engaging setup, though, the film soon begins to fall apart, or rather fails to come together. The characters fight with each other, bond, drink, shoot up, try to reconcile, and so on -- but a plot never coheres. Oldman, of course, is trying to show us a class of people and a part of the city that, at least according to the film's press notes, hasn't been sufficiently explored on screen. But a movie can scarcely be driven by atmosphere and setting alone. And it's not true that we've never seen Brit grit. How could Oldman, of all people, not know that?

He seems like just the right bloke to handle this project, holding both working-class credentials (the son of a welder who split when Gary was seven) and dramatic ones (he was principally known as a stage actor at the Royal Court Theatre when Sid and Nancy hit). But it may be that Oldman is still too close to the grisly experiences of his childhood to manipulate them for dramatic purposes, or maybe he simply has trouble writing scripts.

Despite the recent popularity of genteel adaptations of Jane Austen and Henry James (Martin Amis has called this phenomenon a bout of nostalgia for the class system), the best British films of the past three or four decades have focused on the life of the working class and the down-and-outers, often exhibiting the kind of stylistic austerity that Brits love.

Social realism, in fact -- beginning with the early '60s British New Cinema, the U.K.'s terse and powerful answer to the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism -- may be what they do best. From Karel Reisz's 1960 Saturday Night and Sunday Morning through the spare films of Ken Loach in the '60s and '70s to the empathy and chemistry of Leigh's recent work -- not to mention Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette and Prick Up Your Ears in the '80s, the plays of Harold Pinter, and the BBC's yobcentric Channel Four -- social realism has been the very heart of the British dramatic tradition.

Though Nil By Mouth aims much higher than, say, last year's The Full Monty -- a movie that proved the English are so good at this stuff that they can make even a popular gray-skies movie -- Oldman is on familiar ground. An American filmgoer well versed in British cinema already knows this territory and doesn't need two-plus hours of establishing shots and dirty streets. And as a result of Oldman's emphasis on setting, we don't grow to know these characters or to understand their relationships, even by movie's end.

Nil By Mouth -- the title refers to a hospital patient who cannot be fed orally -- also suffers from its own intensity, verging at times on the unwatchable. Much of the violence -- notably scenes of large characters punching, kicking, and biting smaller ones -- is gratuitous. Oldman seems almost to enjoy lingering on his characters' facial wounds. You want to shout, "We get it!"

It's not that a really grim or violent film can't work. Leigh's Naked, for instance, almost as ugly and violent as Nil By Mouth, risked overloading us with brutality and hopelessness. But actor David Thewlis' Johnny was equal parts charmer and deviant, and the movie's dramatic high-points gave us a glimpse into Johnny's soul -- and Leigh's. We weren't desensitized to the violence and nastiness, because we were reminded that life can offer real connection and solace, however accidental. Despite the inclusion of a couple of cute kids and a noble grandma character in Nil By Mouth, Oldman shovels only misery.

On the good side, Oldman demonstrates real talent as a director, especially for a first-timer; he throws off great flashes of style throughout. The movie's visual highlight may be the fun the camera has with the stark, inhuman geometry of the high-rise housing projects through which Billy runs on his way to buy drugs.

All of the film's performances are memorable. Winstone is so convincing as the bullish Raymond that he's genuinely scary to watch, particularly when his character drinks Smirnoff straight from the bottle or beats the hell out of friends and lovers. But a little of him goes a long way. The film might have been more successful -- evoking, for instance, some empathy for these losers' plights -- if the more levelheaded and charismatic Mark, who drops out about midway through the movie, had been given as much screen time as Ray. As it stands it's hard not to side with the women here and dismiss the guys as a bunch of dangerous, drunken creeps who deserve their lot.

Nil By Mouth.
Directed and written by Gary Oldman. Starring Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Charlie Creed-Miles, Laila Morse, and Jamie Forman.

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Scott Timberg

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