Arthouse photographer Richard Billingham continues to find new ways to frame a searing glimpse into his impoverished upbringing. What began as a book of photographs in the mid90s soon morphed into a series of video installations, and now, adding even more depth to his work, the same subjects serve as the basis for his feature film debut. As he successfully moves from one medium into the next, Ray & Liz proves to be a form of forgiveness for Billingham, as he works through the emotional trauma his parents thrust upon him from an early age.
The lines between fact and fiction are blurred as we meet Billingham’s parents, each living in squalor and slaves to insatiable addictions. His mother, brash chain smoker Liz (Ella Smith), struggles to provide a normal life for her family in council housing. Cut to a couple of decades later where his father, Ray (Patrick Romer), spends his days seemingly awaiting death as his only interaction with the outside world comes in the form of a man who brings him home brew each morning. Bouncing back and forth through time, Billingham attempts to answer the tough questions about who his parents were and how they shaped his psychological journey.
Intimate and observational, Ray & Liz opens with a literal fly on the wall, fascinated with the ways in which people behave when they don’t realize they’re being watched. Based entirely on Billingham’s memory (and the distortion thereof), the film’s careful, tactile environment keeps us at a knee-high view of the world, picking up on the sort of small, seemingly innocuous details that would linger in the mind of a child. The filmmaker is able to suck us into his fantastical reimagining with attentive production design, using even specific wallpaper and carpeting to highlight the harsh social realism of growing up in Britain’s working class during the Thatcher years.
Although it isn’t without earnest patches of wit and sardonic humor, Ray & Liz is a bleak and punishing film. Clearly motivated by a deep affection for contemporaries like Ken Loach and Lynne Ramsay, Billingham’s patient, grinding approach is often difficult to watch, particularly as neglected children are forced to fend for themselves against the grim perils of their circumstances. He lingers on the excess shown not simply as a mindless indulgence, not even as a purely destructive act, but as an absolute necessity for those who have fallen captive to its seductive dominance. In this way, the film makes the songs of Dusty Springfield, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and even Musical Youth feel positively heartbreaking.
Brought to life by the gorgeous visual experimentation of cinematographer Daniel Landin (Under the Skin, The Yellow Birds) and anchored by the matriarchal fury of Ella Smith’s (The Voices, Kill Your Friends) unassailable performance, Ray & Liz is a captivating depiction of genuine tragedy. Like most disheartening works, the film can be a bit of a tough sell. However, this isn’t your typical “poverty porn” flick.” Instead, it’s a stirring character piece that finds redemption in the most unexpected places.