Nil By Mouth was screened as part of the Ultimate Picture Palace's 'Critics' Fortnight' where the films shown were chosen by critics as those which had "sparked their interest in cinema and set them on the path to become a film critic". It has taken me a while to write this review, and on considering why this is the case, I note that Nil By Mouth is not a film which spoon-feeds you anything. Not only are there no answers to be easily found for the questions posed by the film, the actual filming style is oblique; often the shot comes from the other side of a doorway or a curtain in between the viewer and the action. The effect of this is an intense reality; the viewer is not granted any omniscience or dramatic irony but sees the scenes unfold much as they would if they were actually there. For example, in the most violent scene of the film, at the peak of its intensity, a sofa obscures Valerie (Kathy Burke) from view as she is brutally attacked by her drunk husband Ray (Ray Winstone). This does not bring a distance between the viewer and the film, but breaks down the barriers completely. In real life, you don't always catch things when they happen, you might be looking the wrong way or you might only come into the room after the fact. This film replicates real life, and the violence is even more hard-hitting as a result. Our imagination is compelled to provide an idea of what Ray's blows are doing to Valerie.
For this reason, the film can normalise anything it shows to the audience. Nothing is allowed a heightened status by means of its inclusion in the film. Rather, as an audience member, I felt involved in everything I saw. So when Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) shoots up in the back of the car while his Mum (Laila Morse) watches anxiously from the front, we see how easy it is for drug use to become normal and for addiction to take hold. Again, the paradox of being a secondary witness and yet feeling all the closer for it is apparent; when Billy actually injects the heroin, we don't see the needle but instead Morse's wincing face. This film manages to make its audience complicit in the action by forcing us to use the kind of human clues which we would use in real life to understand a situation.
As with any good film, Nil By Mouth poses questions constantly, but never really provides a response. Why do the characters continue to live with situations that cause them pain, both physical and emotional? What holds these people together? Kathy Burke's Valerie is a strong character: she has integrity and she doesn't allow Ray to tell her what to do. So when the domestic violence which underpins their relationship becomes explicit, it comes as somewhat of a shock. Such is the nature of domestic violence. The reasons why people find themselves staying in abusive relationships are extremely complicated and impossible to unpick as an outsider. Nil by Mouth acknowledges this, and manages to do it without defining Valerie by her victimhood. She is a complex character and Burke's award-winning portrayal is detailed, subtle and emotionally charged. There is a scene towards the end of the film where she stands up to Ray, telling him she doesn't want people to feel sorry for her anymore. It is interesting to feel that when she says this she is talking about the cinema audience and to be made to question one's own feelings about her character.
"Keep on moving to the peculiar groove" is the recurring lyric in the song which provides the soundtrack to the film. The groove to which this family from deprived East London moves is indeed peculiar; this is perhaps the take-home point. Being allowed to peer through the keyhole into other people's lives will never provide a straightforward picture. That is not how human lives work. We are all moving through the world to a peculiar groove. There doesn't always have to be a reason why people keep moving. We are not encouraged to pity these people, but rather admire their strength in picking themselves up and moving forwards. We are not expected to understand their lives and their decisions because we are not part of them, but we can still appreciate their humanity. It is entirely understandable why David Calhoun, who chose the film, would have done so for this season, and he put it well in his introduction to the screening: " Like all great stories, [Nil By Mouth] manages to say a great deal about all of us as humans, as lovers, as partners, as parents, as children and the rest - while remaining utterly specific and true to its very very local events and setting." What makes this film so important is its combination of universality and specificity; of exclusivity and inclusivity.