Nil by Mouth
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Gary Oldman revealed himself as a filmmaker of uncompromising talent with Nil by Mouth, his debut and so far only directorial feature.
Set on a council estate in New Cross, south east London (the area where Oldman himself grew up), a dysfunctional family encounters domestic violence, drunkenness, drug addiction and petty crime. Featuring career-best performances from Kathy Burke (winner of Best Actress at Cannes), Ray Winstone and Charlie Creed-Miles, all superbly supported by Laila Morse and Jamie Foreman, Nil by Mouth was awarded Best British Film and Best Original Screenplay at the 1998 Bafta awards.
This intensely powerful and emotional landmark of British has been remastered in 4K for its 25th anniversary by the BFI National Archive, and this release is the first time on Blu-ray anywhere in the world.
Marking the film's 25th anniversary, BFI presents Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a brand-new 4K restoration performed by BFI, primarily from a scan of the 16mm original A/B negatives. In instances where the 16mm elements were unavailable or unusable, a 35mm internegative was used in their place. The disc is locked to region B, so North American viewers will require a player that can playback region B content.
In the included commentary and interview, Oldman mentions how he wanted the film to feature a look similar to gritty movies of the 70s with a thick grain (Taxi Driver and the like). This proved problematic in the 90s as film stocks, at least of the 35mm variety, had “cleaned” the grain up, and he couldn’t quite capture the same look, so he instead filmed in 16mm with the intent of blowing up to 35mm. Even though most of the new presentation isn’t sourced from the 35mm blow-up, the end image retains that gritty look Oldman was going for, thanks primarily to how it handles the grain. The heavy grain has been rendered cleanly and naturally—thanks to the disc’s healthy encode—with details appearing sharp and clean, the finer ones even managing to leap out despite that heavy grain.
The restoration has cleaned the damage up, and I don’t recall anything outside of a few minor marks. What surprised me most was the rendering of the film’s colors. The film is essentially “drab” in its look, but there are gorgeous pops of blue and red, all brilliantly saturated here despite the film's dank look. Black levels are also excellent and deep, with an impressive range in the shadows, giving the image a better sense of depth.
By design Nil by Mouth isn’t what one would call a “pretty” film, but this is a gorgeous digital presentation that affords the film a fantastic boost.
BFI includes a 2.0 PCM stereo soundtrack and a 5.1 surround soundtrack, presented in DTS-HD MA. I only listened to the 5.1 track.
The film's soundtrack focuses on the fronts, dialogue primarily to the center channel, but there are some intense moments where things open up. Scenes in pubs or gatherings, along with sequences out on the streets, deliver ambient noise through the surrounds with clear direction, placing the viewer squarely front and center. Music is also mixed effectively through the surrounds. Dialogue is clear and sharp with good range and fidelity.
BFI has assembled an incredible special edition for the film, gathering most key players and starting everything with an all-new audio commentary featuring director Gary Oldman and producer Douglas Urbanski. Urbanski chimes in and engages with Oldman on several topics, but the track is Oldman’s show, the two covering production details. Oldman talks about writing the script (he bought a new computer to do so) before moving on to casting and finding the appropriate leads, though he already had Winstone in mind. The two even discuss the basis for many sequences in the film and recount how they brought on a technical consultant despite the film being inspired partly by Oldman's experiences. It's an informative and dense track, well worth listening to.
The first disc then includes a trailer for the film’s 25th anniversary, along with 39 minutes worth of deleted scenes. The “deleted scenes” are a collection of alternate takes from a few sequences, including a scene at the burger joint, a police interrogation, and even Burke’s character leaving a corner store. It’s mentioned in the commentary and interviews found elsewhere how the actors did stick strictly to the script but were allowed, on occasion, to improvise. The collection of takes (which also include reverse shots of the other actors) highlights some of the actors' improvisations: the scenes follow the same path, but some dialogue can differ.
The second dual-layer disc (also locked to region B) then features the remaining extras, including new interviews featuring director Oldman (51 minutes), producer Urbanski (15 minutes), actors Ray Winstone (22 minutes) and Charlie Creed-Miles (28 minutes), and casting director Sue Jones (16 minutes), with Oldman, Urbanski, and Winstone each sitting with film critic Geoff Andrew.
The Oldman and Urbanski interviews expand on the commentary, Oldman, for example, talking more about the media misrepresenting how the film was about his father (it wasn’t). He also talks about his desire to represent his class and even laments how he could not direct another film, his as-of-yet unproduced film Joe Buck coming up. Andrew also talks about how the film hit him when he first saw it at its premiere (making sure to mention it was following a disastrous screening of Johnny Depp’s The Brave), and the two get into a bit of a discussion about the world it's portraying.
Urbanski talks about the project coming together and the final product, admiring what Oldman accomplished, while Jones recounts the off-the-cuff nature of casting the film. The two even get into the current landscape concerning being able to make films like Nil By Mouth or—in Jones’ case—casting in general, COVID having changed the landscape even further.
Creed-Miles’ and Winstone’s casting both come up, of course, and Creed-Miles shares the experience from his perspective, sharing how he had replaced another actor Oldman had previously offered the role to (Oldman even feared that the previous actor would run across Creed-Miles in public and beat him up). Winstone, on the other, was the first one considered for the role despite he and Oldman not knowing each other, and Winstone was more than eager to do the film after reading the script and seeing how well it captured the world it depicted. And even though Oldman talks about it a bit in both the commentary and interview, it was still surprising to hear from the two that there was minimal improvisation. In one instance, Oldman even explained to Creed-Miles how he should precisely deliver a line. Speaking from an actor’s perspective, these two interviews are probably the most interesting, though all five interviews are worth viewing.
BFI then closes the disc with an extensive set of photo galleries and features around two short films. One consists of approximately 7 minutes of surviving footage around a project Oldman was making about his mother (who he had intended to cast in Nil By Mouth and still regrets not doing to this day), aptly entitled Mother. I assume it was supposed to be a documentary. However, the footage (that may be constructed from multiple takes) shows his mother returning to her apartment after visiting the corner store and appears to be scripted or planned. That's a nice inclusion on Oldman's and BFI's part. Still, an even bigger inclusion is Terence Davies’ first feature (and the first of a loose trilogy that includes Madonna and Child and Death and Transfiguration), Children, made in 1976 and running under 47 minutes.
The film is similar to Nil By Mouth though only in that the central portion of the story focuses on a young man from a working-class neighborhood and (eventually) his family, which also includes an angry father. The film is told through (I think) flashbacks, and a large portion of the story occurs at a Catholic school that the boy attends. He’s constantly bullied (possibly because he is gay) and spends most of his time alone. His home life doesn’t improve things and offers no relief, especially when things take an even darker turn. It’s Davies’ first film, though it is stylistically very different from his latter work, at least from what I’ve seen. It offers a dingey, straightforward look that doesn't even hint at his later style, feeling more typical of the period and the type of film. I wouldn’t say it's a “kitchen sink drama,” but it has a similar feel. It does sort of meander though it proves effective as a mood piece. It also appears to come from a recent restoration. The presentation looks quite good here.
The release also comes with a booklet, though I still need to get a copy. It’s listed as follows:
80-page book featuring new writing by Douglas Urbanski, Kat Ellinger, Lou Thomas, Philip Kemp, and Jason Wood and archive extracts from Time Out and Sight & Sound. Also includes contributions on selected extras by Gary Oldman and never before seen original storyboards from the film
Considering the usual quality of their booklets, I have no doubt it’s a stellar inclusion, but I will provide an update when I get a copy. Even without the booklet, it’s still an impressive collection of material covering the film and its production, BFI going all out in gathering everyone they can to discuss it.
An impressive edition pulling together a wonderful set of features alongside a sharp looking new presentation that captures the film’s gritty look as best as can be expected. Highly recommended.