Richard Billingham is primarily known as an autobiographical photographer/multimedia artist. He grew up in the tenement flats of Cradley Heath, a tiny town on the outskirts of Birmingham, England. Most of his photography and video artwork consists of character studies, mostly featuring members of his own family. Thusly, it is no surprise that his first feature film is also a dramatization of his oft-dysfunctional family dynamic.
Ray & Liz are based upon Billingham’s parents. Ray is the quiet long-suffering husband of Liz, the overweight chain-smoking matriarch who won’t think twice about beating the shit out of someone with a shoe if she is wronged. Rich is the youngest of their two sons, who have become accustomed to taking care of his younger brother Jason. While Rich is much more focused on his schoolwork and life outside of his chaotic home, Jason embraces his parent’s anarchic sensibilities. This isn’t his fault, it is a result of his upbringing and overall lack of structure.
It’s really hard to say whether or not the parents of these two intended on being so neglectful of their children. They aren’t portrayed in the most positive way, especially when the children were growing up, but one can glean a sense of deep regret in both Ray & Liz, particularly when they’re older.
“…his first feature film is also a dramatization of his oft-dysfunctional family dynamic.”
Since Billingham is a photographer, the visual aspects of this film are beautiful and transformative and tell a lot of the story that can’t be expressed in words. It also doesn’t hurt that Daniel Landin, whose previous credits include Under the Skin and Sexy Beast, is the cinematographer. The flat in the film is an almost identical replication of Billingham’s childhood home, filled with knick-knacks and animals of all sorts.
The two best performances in Ray & Liz come from Ella Smith (Liz) and Joshua Millard-Lloyd (Jason). Liz is the strongest force in the entire film. While in their old age, Ray has receded into himself in a single room where all he does is drink his home-brewed liquor, while Liz has moved on and only talks to Ray when she needs money. Liz almost always seems miserable, like she believes if it wasn’t for Ray or her kids, she would be doing something bigger and better. While Jason has a rebellious nature and searches for something better than the ramshackle hand he has been dealt in life, even as a small child.
“…not the feel-good movie of the year…but it is a perfect fictionalized portrait…”
The film also has a great soundtrack, including the rather hilarious usage of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House” and Fine Young Cannibals’ “Good Thing”. The soundtrack also lets us know that we’re in Thatcher-Era Britain, which, if you know anything about English history, was not a good time for anyone, especially poor people—but with not very many jobs to go around, there weren’t a lot of people who could be anything but poor.
The film is not the feel-good movie of the year by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a perfect fictionalized portrait of Billingham’s family, for better or worse. It has a lot of similarities with films such as Harmony Korine’s Gummo or Giuseppe Andrews’ Touch Me in the Morning which are slice-of-life portrayals of poor weirdos. This film is much more subdued and true-to-life than the previous two, and therefore will probably (hopefully) receive more critical acclaim.
Ray & Liz written and directed by Richard Billingham. Starring Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Patrick Romer, Deirdre Kelly, Tony Way, Sam Gittins, Joshua Millard-Lloyd. Ray & Liz screened at the 2018 New York Film Festival.
7 Out of 10 Stars