Gary Oldman's brutal portrayal of working-class south London life still packs a punch

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Art Of Darkness

Ray’s a petty gangster and tower-block tyrant who speaks with his fists, even if it means getting ugly with his wife and kids. Fired up on vodka and the odd line of coke, everything in Ray’s life is defined by implied threats and latent aggression?love, business, friendship, family. He’s a human volcano just waiting to erupt. And erupt he does.

Gary Oldman and Ray Winstone both seemed like spent forces from a past decade before Nil By Mouth loudly punctured the Blairite-Britpop Cool Britannia bubble. Oldman’s writer-director debut is tougher, realer and more sustained than any of his on-screen performances since his 1980s collaborations with Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke. And Winstone was born to play Ray, a terrifyingly charismatic father figure blind to his own self-loathing and hair-trigger temper. He is, literally, the Daddy.

Set in the working-class south London of Oldman’s own childhood, Nil By Mouth is full of powerhouse performances. Jamie Foreman, the son of Kray twins associate Freddie, lends edgy authenticity to Ray’s fiercely loyal drinking buddy Mark. But Kathy Burke is the true revelation in her most serious dramatic role, earning a Best Actress prize at Cannes in 1997 for playing Val, Ray’s soulfully sad human punchbag of a wife. Long before any fists are raised, Val is belittled and humiliated, her lowly place in Ray’s brutal pecking order perpetually reinforced by verbal and emotional bullying.

Oldman holds off on showing domestic violence until two-thirds of the way through, first establishing a context of scabby London pubs, booze and drugs, bad housing and poor parenting. You don’t need Ken Loach to find social comment beneath the raw docu-drama surface, although there’s none of the idealised and ideologically rigid depiction of earnest wage-slave suffering that Loach brings to his underclass yarns. Oldman’s lowlife bruisers are flawed but rounded, monstrous but deeply human.

Nil By Mouth was clearly a labour of both love and hate for Oldman. Pointedly dedicated to his father, it seethes with rage about violent, drunken, absent dads. Laila Morse (Janet) is the director’s sister, and that voice we hear when Edna Dor