For his feature film debut, Turner prize nominated artist and photographer Richard Billingham shapes a striking, disquieting dive into his childhood memoirs, based on a previously published set of photographs, Ray’s a Laugh (1996). The BAFTA nominated film version; Ray and Liz is a time-roving probe into the home life of a lower working class family battling poverty and alcohol addiction while trying to raise children in Dudley and Birmingham’s Black Country housing estates.
The story darts back and forth from Billingham’s childhood in the ‘70s and ‘80s to years later, capturing various stages in, and ages of, the characters and their lives. Billingham paints a bristly textured family history with biting wit and gregarious flair. With other artists; simply interpreting or imagining such experiences could run the risk of condescending, caricaturising or reinforcing stereotypes, but Billingham burrows deep for finer details and shows no fear of getting dirt under his nails while mining old memories.
We first meet Ray (Patrick Romer) as a lonely old man who sleeps in his clothes, shivers from years of booze abuse and struggles to suck remnants from burnt dog ends in his beige walled bedroom. An ill screen patina décor slumps glum and sunken on screen, coloured by decades of cigarette smoke, while floral patterned carpets ferment under withered curtains. Smoke plumes and cups of tea steam twist around Ray like ghostly caresses as he twitches while waiting for his regular delivery of home brew to arrive, from lowly pal Sid (Richard Ashton).
Years earlier we see Liz: an angry, chain smoking, tattooed chav goliath, played to petrifying perfection by Ella Smith. Liz lives with a wily, wiry and younger Ray (Justin Salinger) and is mother to his young son. Their home life is tetchy at best but primarily perilous after Ray’s disabled brother, Laurence (or Lol) played by Tony Way, is tasked to take care of his nephew while the couple are away. Cue a series of calamitous car(e) crash faux pas that are as chilling as they are riotous when manipulative lodger, Will (Sam Gittins) arrives.
Other vignettes reveal characters constantly on the cusp of doing something stupid, but these flawed few are strengthened by their defects and differences, yet are all glaringly unfit to take care of children. Ray and Liz accentuates other issues such as: loneliness, bullying and social deprivation without over politicising or providing social commentary. Its heart lies within the characters, past, drama and more specifically rejected, introvert son, Jason who collects snails and goes off the rails after committing aberrant acts like; tipping chilli powder down his sleeping Dad’s throat and dropping mum’s ornaments out of their high-rise window. The film becomes Jason’s throughout the final third where it builds to an apt yet (partly) tragic conclusion, graced with a glimmer of hope.
Ray and Liz is contradictorily stark, colourful, frighteningly hilarious and feels radical through its garnering of finer details to inform the setting, incredible characters, performances and impeccable craft. Billingham’s film is often hard going, but far from the likes (or eras) of Ken Loach and Alan Clarke despite similarities and the whiff of Terrence Davies. People scavenge for cigarette butts on the subway and collect dog ends in jars to give to nicotine hungry house guests. Meanwhile sofas covered in snails and faeces combine with close ups of flies and lightbulbs.
These are just some of the particulars that contribute to make Ray & Liz shocking, intoxicating socio-realist poetry. The kitchen sink/ drab locales are captured with salient flair that makes movie magic in this genre’s context, all the more miraculous. Its brave cinema lacing solemnity with noxious comedy that only someone with first-hand experience and hindsight could conjure with such reverence. Billingham clearly houses a great thwack of film savvy to make a colourlessness council flat seem so alluring. This, enriched by details combined with the courage to polish a dark past so uniquely makes it all the more magical when seen on the big screen.
Ray & Liz is released on the 8th March 2019.
Words by Daniel Goodwin @privateutopias.
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