Under Her Eye review: Nil By Mouth

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Read the shortlisted Under Her Eye reviews then vote for your favourite.

As part of Stylist’s Under Her Eye initiative, we’re on the hunt for three new female film critics. We asked aspiring reviewers to send in a 450-word review of their favourite film – and after an overwhelming response, we’ve whittled it down to a shortlist of 20. 

Read one woman’s review of  Nil By Mouth below and click here to see the other entries and vote for your favourite.

Although a film that focuses on domestic violence, substance addiction and working-class poverty may be an unusual choice, Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth (1997) remains top of my list. The most poignant moment for me is when down-trodden Val (played by a 33-year old Kathy Burke) and her grandmother Kath (Edna Doré) slow dance cheek to cheek in Kath’s cramped kitchen to ‘Pandora,’ one of several tunes by R&B vocalist Frances Ashman to feature on Eric Clapton’s soulful soundtrack to the film. Val has been beaten black and blue, resulting in the loss of her unborn child. Her flat has been trashed and the man she loves has irrevocably betrayed her. Yet, while Val’s 5-year old daughter sits absorbed in her colouring-in book and Ashman’s vocals croon “Last chance to paradise / Open your eyes…” there exists serenity and calm. The very worst has happened, but in this moment all is well.

Set amidst the working men’s clubs, launderettes, lock-ups and council estates of mid-1990s South East London, Nil By Mouth follows the abusive behaviour of Raymond (Ray Winstone) towards his wife Val. Oldman’s intimate camera angles provide a fly-on-the-wall documentary feel, further invoked by a script so realistic it verges on improv (indeed, Oldman stated that the script was based on his own childhood experience). To anyone who hasn’t seen this film it is definitely worth a watch, especially in light of changes to our understanding of domestic violence in the intervening decades. 

A terrifyingly raw sexuality oozes from Ray Winstone, making him as mesmerizing as the young Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. Ray’s rage against the world-at-large – made manifest in his treatment of Val – seems utterly groundless until he finally admits his own father’s violent alcoholic behaviour as he was growing up. “Why did you never love me?!” he mourns into his Vodka bottle.

Painful family legacies also play out in the intergenerational experiences of Val’s family - her stoical mother and grandmother live together, seemingly abandoned by men and fiercely protective of one another. All three women are resigned to the violent and unpredictable conduct of the men around them, including Val’s non-violent but nevertheless disturbingly drug-addicted brother Billy. 

If I have one criticism, it would be that none of the female characters seem to have any agency to make their own choices. But, regardless of whether it is the 1990s or the present, is that not precisely the point? When confronted by a coercive, dominating, addicted (and addictive) husband, how is it possible to make a sensible choice? Nil By Mouth is a universal meditation on the senseless inevitability of abusive relationships – and the unpredictable glimmers of hope that can seep out from the edges of them.

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