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From Harold Pinter to Merchant/

Ivory, English drama is characterized by its meaningful silences. But Nil by Mouth, actor Gary Oldman’s corrosive directorial debut, is not set in Pinterland. It opens with a bravura blast of overlapping Altman-Cassavetes-Scorsese-style chatter, as the handheld camera follows Raymond (Ray Winstone) and his mates from a workingman’s club to a Soho strip bar. The talk is so dense that it’s sometimes incomprehensible, yet the babble is electric and oddly comforting. After all, when Raymond stops talking, he starts punching.

As Oldman indicates by naming his production company SE8 Group, for the postal code of his southeast London boyhood neighborhood, the writer-director is on familiar ground. That territory, however, is principally interior. Filmed mostly in close-ups and medium shots with few establishing shots, Nil by Mouth is sociological only by implication. Oldman, a recovering alcoholic, has told interviewers that Raymond is based partially on his ex-brother-in-law, his father, and himself, and seeing his film is like being sucked into a psychological abyss. You can contemplate the plight of the British working class after it’s over.

If Raymond is part Oldman, so is Bill (Charlie Creed-Miles), Raymond’s brother-in-law. The two characters seem initially to be friendly, but Bill is a heroin addict, and therefore a thief. When Bill steals from Raymond, only Raymond’s wife Valerie (Kathy Burke) can stand between her husband and her brother, and only long enough for Bill to make a quick escape, his nose bleeding from Raymond’s bite. Bill flees to his mother Janet (Laila Morse, Oldman’s sister and a first-time actress), who lives with her mother (Edna Dore). Janet is one of Bill’s more reliable sources of cash, but she can’t afford to fully underwrite his habit.

Tightly focused but loosely structured, Nil by Mouth eventually arrives at one long-anticipated scene—Raymond’s battering of Valerie—but not others. The film’s discursiveness is not always a virtue, but it does allow for bracingly unexpected shifts. After beginning as an account of berserk men, it turns to the society of women who nurse Valerie back to health. Oldman is not sentimental about either the brutes or the nurturers, however. Janet tries to care for her grown children, but when her own mother intervenes she lets the whole apartment block hear her call the old woman a “fucking cow.”

The film is more indulgent of its actors than it is of its characters. Winstone’s Raymond is allowed a lengthy drunken soliloquy as he destroys the apartment that Valerie has fled, Creed-Miles’ Bill does a playful Jamaican-accent bit in the bath, and a minor character, a friend of Bill’s, delivers Dennis Hopper’s Apocalypse Now speech in tandem with a VCR. Such acting showcases aren’t the film’s most compelling moments. Neither is the occasional psychological explication, as when Raymond tells the story that explains the film’s title: “Nil by mouth” was a directive written on his father’s medical chart, but Raymond identified it with the emotional void in their relationship.

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Even as the characters split apart, they’re never entirely alone. Oldman’s camera is always conspicuously with them, jostling to get a better look. Shooting from such vantage points as across the street, so that cars sometimes whoosh between the characters and the lens, the director captures both the isolation and the closeness of inner London’s streets. The images match the unerring dialogue: robust though sometimes indirect, colorful yet hardly poetic. The score, by ex-junkie Eric Clapton, is equally rough and loose.

For all the film’s debts to Mean Streets and Raging Bull, Nil by Mouth is more distinctive when depicting group rituals than acts of solitary machismo. Just when the narrative seems to have unraveled as completely as Raymond and Valerie’s marriage, it coheres powerfully for two sequences. In the first, four generations of females (including Raymond and Valerie’s young daughter) go to a club, where great-grandmother blithely sings “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” which is darkly ironic in this context. Then a slightly larger group discusses the current status of an absent family member, laughing uproariously at a fate that’s not particularly comic. This scene embodies Oldman’s accomplishment: It conveys the warmth of working-class camaraderie while telling a true-to-life joke that sends chills up your spine.

While hardly a crusader, British director Beeban Kidron has tried to bring a woman’s perspective to her work, most successfully in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, adapted from Jeanette Winterson’s growing-up-gay novel. Swept From the Sea might also seem a woman’s story, since it’s based on a longish Joseph Conrad short story titled “Amy Foster.” Despite its name, however, Conrad’s tale displays little concern for Foster. It’s more interested in Yanko, a Ukrainian immigrant who has washed up on the shores of 19th-century Cornwall (and thus is a much more characteristically Conradian figure).

Tim Willocks’ script both expands and glamorizes the character of Foster, a servant girl who helps support her unhappy parents’ large brood. On screen, Amy’s “dull face” and “squat figure” are personified by beautiful Rachel Weisz, who never seems as strange or simple-minded as her local detractors insist. An unexplained mystery in Conrad’s story, Amy here becomes some sort of Celtic sea priestess. (Some say Amy’s a witch, and the pious Yanko exclaims that her feeling for the sea is “not Christian,” but the film doesn’t develop this theme.) Estranged from her neighbors, Amy turns to the ocean, collecting pieces of flotsam as if they were gifts intended just for her. When the lusty yet vulnerable Yanko (Vincent Pérez) arrives on the waves, she claims him too, winning his heart with a small act of kindness. After Yanko learns English, he’s accepted by some of the locals, but Amy is the only person to recognize immediately that the castaway is no threat.

Conrad had Dr. Kennedy (Ian McKellen) tell the story. Swept From the Sea adds a second narrator, Miss Swaffer (Kathy Bates), another character who’s much amplified from the story—and much more sympathetic to Amy than anyone in the original. Since Kennedy and Swaffer were both nearby during the events they recount, it seems odd for them to be telling their competing versions to each other. At least Conrad had the sense to have Kennedy divulge his story to a visitor.

Aside from the power of the sea itself, the movie’s calamities are mostly caused by miscommunication. Yanko gradually learns to express himself, but Amy has difficulty speaking up. When Yanko contracts pneumonia—and thus risks, in essence, drowning while on land—he becomes delirious and temporarily loses his ability to speak English. It’s during these hours that the story’s crucial event occurs.

Communication is not a problem only for Amy and Yanko. Kidron and Willocks have their difficulties too, notably in characterizing Amy as a resourceful, sensitive woman who’s perfectly articulate most of the time yet utterly mute at crucial moments. The effect is to make the film seem contrived primarily so that Kidron can pretend to be David Lean, commanding grand views of sea, sky, and shore while

John Barry’s score regurgitates familiar orchestral motifs. Thanks to Dangerous Beauty, Swept From the Sea is

not the most risible costume drama of the fortnight, but it does seem the

most pointless.CP