Richard Billingham (director)
1h 48mins (length)
28 February 2019 (released)
28 February 2019
The stunning debut film of Turner Prize-nominated photographer Richard Billingham follows his titular parents in a stark and uncompromising autobiographical portrait of the downfall of his family in Thatcher-era Britain.
The film is told in three separate time periods, comprised of strange flashbacks. At first, we are introduced to an elderly Ray, an alcoholic rotting away in a dirty bedroom, little more than one of the many insects that scuttle around him. We are then transported back to a day of significance within the families life, with the intention of highlighting two things, the dysfunction of the family and the brutality of Richard’s mother Elizabeth, a physically domineering woman and absent-minded mother. Her interactions with her children are completely devoid of love with her brutishness evoked early on when their previous dog is suggested to have been killed by her after a beating. The film is full of small details like that which build up a deep image of the bleak and inescapable world these people inhabit.
Much like his award-winning photographs, the film permeates a tactile and sensory view into his broken household. You can almost smell the tobacco-stained walls and the unmistakable stench of alcohol, this all effectively communicated with Billingham's direction and the stellar cinematography by Daniel Landin. The gorgeous 16mm photography was the definite highlight of ‘Ray and Liz’, it prevented me ever becoming bored with the films unusual structure by filling the frame with details that emphasised the world on-screen. Billingham’s attention to detail adds an immense depth and poeticism to the film; from shots of a letter soaked in dog urine to the imprint left in a mattress when Ray finally gets up, only to light a cigarette and reach for his glass with a trembling hand.
Evident within the film is Richard Billingham’s non-existent relationship with his parents. His portrayal of them within the film, including the imagery evoked alongside them, was an intriguing gaze into his psyche and perhaps why from a narrative standpoint he focuses more on the fate of his brother. The second major flashback picks up a few years after the first with the family having moved from their filthy house to a dilapidated apartment, this time focusing more on young Jason as he grows up with no support. His parents sleep all day and have no idea he isn’t going to school, or they simply don’t care, all that is evident is there is no regard for him.
As with his ‘Rays a laugh’ photo-series, Billingham's access is what excels this film, his closeness to the subject matter oozes from every shot with a harrowing intensity. The fact he lived through these events grants the film a new dimension and his ability to portray them using his own cinematic language is impressive. All-around solid performances elevate the film further, especially those of Justin Salinger and Ella Smith as the young Ray and Liz respectively, their total believability and unwavering performances evoke unspoken damage in both their hearts. Sound played a smaller role within the film, for the most part, reduced to that of ambience, unfortunately. On the other hand, the lack of music throughout was appreciated as an over-reliance on it would have detracted from the story. Instead, its scarce use made the moments where music did emerge, that much more emotionally resonant.
A criticism I have heard thrown at Richard Billingham is that after the success of his original photo series he kept trying to recapture the magic of those initial photographs, with varying degrees of success. When I heard that his debut film was dealing with the same subject matter I was sceptical, however with ‘Ray and Liz’ he has been able to add a whole new depth to those original images using the language of cinema. Had he chosen to centre the story on himself over his brother I don’t think there would be much of a reason for the film to exist, but by avoiding that he is able to tell a new story. The film felt aimless at times, leaving me wondering what it was all leading up to, though upon finishing the film I understood the kind of film Richard Billingham was trying to make and I commend him for it.
Seek out ‘Ray and Liz’ for its portrayal of a deeply dysfunctional family, enhanced by its brutal attention to detail and unflinching vision of its director.