Gritty London reality

Gary Oldman makes his debut as director with the highly praised film Nil By Mouth. Matthew Valentine looks at the evocative book of Jack English’s photographs

You can tell Gary Oldman has his serious director’s head on, rather than his serious actor’s head, for Nil By Mouth. Photographs, in the book of the same name, show him looking like a grizzled Tom Waits creative type, rather than the usually handsome leading man he plays in front of the cameras.

Plaudits have already been heaped upon the film, although so far few have seen it. (It is not released here until October.) Most notably actress Kathy Burke will shock many television viewers, who know her only as Waynetta Slob from Harry Enfield’s television shows. She won the Best Supporting Actress category at the Cannes Film Festival for her role.

This limited edition book (only 1000 have been printed) will primarily be used for marketing purposes. Around 250 were given away at Cannes, and more will be distributed to press and movie industry people in countries where the film is given a release. The remainder will be sold, via the Photographers Gallery in London, from 10 June. The price has not yet been fixed, but it is likely to be expensive.

The film is touted as a gritty portrayal of life on a south London housing estate, and as a semi-autobiographical catharsis for Oldman, a self-confessed recovering alcoholic. Fittingly the book, designed by Soho consultancy Jaques Russell, intersperses real-life footage from the grim estate where Nil By Mouth was shot with stills from the film, and from the process of creating it. Photographer Jack English apparently made separate visits to the estate, to capture the interiors of lifts, corridors and empty flats, when the film crew had left. On the evidence of the results, he is a very brave man.

The book uses stark, sepia-toned, documentary-style pictures of locations, juxtaposed with brash colour close-ups of heroin being injected and other south London domestic moments, from the film. Some of these appear innocent and, because of the lighting levels, even warm, until the characters’ cuts, bruises or expressions of fear rise to the surface.

Quotes from the film make sense of the pictures, contributing further to the sense of mood. From the hopelessness of “Can I have a fag nan?” to the unbridled aggression of “I’ll kill him. And then I’ll kill you, and your fuckin’ slag shit cunt family. I’ll blow you all up,” the dialogue could certainly be described as evocative.

The cover of the hardback tome features strips of film hanging in front of an editing suite window, echoing the feeling that the book is almost a show reel, and giving a promise of what is to come should you venture to the local cinema. Or the local estate, if you’re as brave as Jack English.

Developed over a period of months, the book was a team effort by the staff of Jaques Russell. In true independent movie fashion, there was no brief. In fact, it was originally intended to be a far smaller A5 publicity book. The project “grew and grew and grew”, according to Jaques Russell partner Martin Jaques.

The foreword to the book, by Jack English, tells of initial location discussions. These settled on “SE8 pubs, snooker halls and council walkways”. It is good to hear, then, that Jaques Russell was appointed to the project “through friends of friends” in true south London pub style, rather than through a pitch in a Soho wine bar. That just wouldn’t have been right.

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