Cinema review: Raw, like just-killed meat

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The Independent Online
After he has kicked his pregnant wife across the floor of their flat, Ray adjusts the waistband of his underpants as though he's just finished having a piss. Cinema doesn't get much more harrowing than Gary Oldman's directorial debut, Nil by Mouth (18), a portrait of a dysfunctional, no-income family living on a Deptford housing estate. It has a gritty, witty script; it has two blistering lead performances; its cinematography is as raw and fresh as meat that's still twitching on the abattoir slab. In short, it's the most arresting British film of the year.

Oldman has lit his film with amazing skill. He shows us his tower blocks at night, or in cheerless dawns seen only by milkmen and homeless people. He floods his scenes with a queasy, algal luminosity that glows from sodium streetlamps, through grimy windows and on to textured steel doors, creating a miasma as sickly as a Vuillard painting, as ghoulish as Conrad's image of London as "a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off".

In this airless atmosphere, Oldman has propagated a series of shockingly plausible characters. Raymond (Ray Winstone) gleams with sweat, as if his pent-up aggression is suppurating through his pores. As his wife, Valerie, Kathy Burke is triumphant. For the first half of the film she is a mournful, almost silent presence. When we see her after her hellish beating, she's been transformed into a monstrosity of bruises and lesions. She tells her mum that she's been hit by a car, but her string of lies doesn't have the phoney ring such speeches usually have in issue-based drama. Burke judges the moment perfectly: Valerie wants to convince, and almost does.

This sort of rhetoric is central to the film. Oldman harnesses the rhythms of pub patter to give his story pace, and to emphasise the hideous ordinariness of the cruelties on show. Desperate events get recycled into bar banter:when Valerie's brother goes to prison, she giggles at the thought of him being put in the "Fraggle Wing", along with "all the nonces and rapists".

Like its characters, however, Nil By Mouth has its problems. It loses its way in the last couple of reels: a long, somewhat overwritten reminiscence about Ray's father jars against the spare efficiency of the rest. A final, searing speech by Kathy Burke is clearly the film's dramatic peak, but the plot meanders a bit further before supplying a bitter epilogue. But this is still a major achievement, to toast in Tennent's Super.

Comparably grim territory is covered by House of America (15), a drama dealing with Welsh rural poverty and gruesome family secrets. Marc Evans's film centres on matriarch Sian Phillips, her three children and their absent father, who has apparently absconded to the States. An unreal New World dominates the children's lives: Sid (Stephen Mackintosh) and Gwenny (Lisa Palfrey) fantasise about being Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson, and are led by that fantasy into an incestuous relationship. The USA is also present in more literal ways: a Michigan mining company is blasting in their valley; the family home is an Edward Hopper cottage that looks as if it should be bathed in Cape Cod sunshine, but is instead soused in the rain and coal dust of South Wales.

Evans plays his rural squalor well. It's a subject rarely treated in British cinema (Withnail and I is a lonely, if comic, example), and he takes care to enunciate every detail of mouldy wallpaper and mud-caked board. Though the film is rather self-consciously tragic, it opens up a landscape of deprivation even less familiar than Oldman's Deptford. But its real originality is in its pyrotechnics: one extraordinary scene has Sian Phillips taking a walk on a hillside that is suddenly dynamited, and another sequence - in which Sid and Gwenny freewheel towards an exploding coalface - has an exhilarating, kamikaze panache.

Pusher (18) is a street-smart melodrama about Danish dope-peddlers. (Miss Smilla's Dealing in Snow, perhaps?) This week's third first-time director, Nicolas Winding Refn, renders his film in intense, paranoid detail, and the straightforward narrative in which Frank (Kim Bodnia) tries to repay a debt to a wild-eyed Serbian drugs baron benefits from the treatment. Though there are great swathes of boring chatter, Refn produces a handful of powerful sequences, notably one in which Milo's psychotic sidekick Radovan (Slavko Labovic) provides Frank with violent back-up as he tries to call in his own bad debts. The inevitability that this violence will soon be turned against Frank hangs over these scenes like a cloud of poison gas. If Refn's editor had been as vicious as his characters, the film might have been more even. But an overkill of faux- Tarantino-ism dilutes some engagingly rough camerawork.

Gong Li is a modern icon, and unfortunately, her directors often treat her as such. In Temptress Moon (15), Chen Kaige is too willing to stand and admire her glacial passivity, and too keen on shots of her staring to camera, lips slightly parted. The film is a historical epic of the sort which is now familiar from the new Chinese cinema, sumptuously photographed but incoherently constructed. Gong and Leslie Cheung play brother and sister-in-law, wayward children of the powerful Pang family, whose relationship encompasses bitter rivalry and near-incestuous attraction. Chen makes their relationship stand for a broader inter-gender conflict, one which - as in Farewell My Concubine - the men seem to have won hands down. "I grind them into the dirt, but they still want me," boasts Cheung's gigolo, Zhongliang, of his female conquests. The film takes a voyeuristic interest in the grinding process; but it can't find much erotic energy to power it. The sex scenes are curiously galumphing, and the film as a whole is chilly, unpersuasive and a touch misogynist.

The Game (15) is a movie that made me question two things: the purpose of criticism, and basic Cartesian principles about the nature of perception. The former because, as the credits of David Fincher's thriller rolled, the only response I found myself able to formulate was "huh"? The latter, because I truly couldn't believe what I was seeing. But cogito ergo sum; I think therefore this film is as bad as it seemed to be. It's a conspiracy thriller that relies on a twist in the tale so laughable, it makes "I woke up and it was all a dream" seem like the star idea at the script conference. Its hero, Michael Douglas - surely Hollywood's least likeable male lead - doesn't even look convinced. Utterly baffling, contemptibly ludicrous, and hard to credit to the director of Se7en.

Father's Day (12) is less perplexing, but no more inspiring. Seventeen years ago, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Bruce Greenwood were all sleeping with Natassja Kinski - but whose DNA is sloshing about inside her teenage son? Three Men and a Spermatozoa, basically. The stars exert little effort on material that doesn't deserve to be treated any differently, and director Ivan Reitman introduces an oddly unseemly note. There's a finale of frenzied head-butting, and one set-piece involves a cheery paedophilia gag, as a bellhop assumes that Williams and Crystal are having sex with their teenage son in a shower and agrees to keep quiet. Which doesn't say much for the hotels in San Francisco.

Disney's 35th animated feature, Hercules (U), is one of the corporation's customary confections of terror, smart jokes and mawkish sentimentality. The songs are self-help schmaltz set to muzak - they won't be making a musical out of this one. But the gags are clever ("I thought I had problems," exclaims Hercules, after watching a performance of Oedipus Rex), and there is even an attempt at satire - "Herc" is so successful, he opens merchandising outlets in Thebes ("the Big Olive"), selling branded drinks and action figures. Hercules has, of course, already spawned spin-offs from toothbrushes to lunchboxes to phonecards. Unsurprisingly, the film takes many liberties with its source-myths, one of which is the naming of Hades, King of the Underworld. Traditionally, his name was not spoken aloud for fear of incurring his wrath. Instead, you had to address him as Pluto. Impossible here, of course: Disney would never have agreed to recast their agreeable orange dog as the Monarch of the Dead.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 8.

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